So where are the laptops?Posted Wednesday, October 10, 2012, at 8:31 AM
One school year has come and gone and we're now well into the second one since the Idaho Legislature cut funding to schools in order to pay for putting a laptop in the hands of every high school student in the state.
Except, nobody's got one.
The funding's still missing, of course. All over Idaho school districts like the Mountain Home School District were forced to go to their local voters for emergency supplemental levies to avoid disaster when the legislature made the first true cut in dollars to education in history.
Fortunately, local voters were smarter than the legislature and approved the levy request.
If the legislature thinks public education is broken it's because the legislature has broken it.
It doesn't help when your state superintendent of education, Tom Luna, prefers home schooling over public schools.
To be fair to our local legislators, two of the three actually opposed their own party and voted against the Luna Plan. Only Pete Nielsen voted yes.
The plan was hastily drawn up by Luna after he won re-election two years ago. Voters weren't given an opportunity to debate the plan because they didn't know about it until a couple months after the election.
The original plan called for 800 teachers to be fired across the state to make way for tens of thousands of laptop computers. But the legislators gave themselves some self-protection wiggle room. They let the state board come up with the details.
And some interesting things happened along the way as implementing the Luna Plan got harder and harder.
Instead of requiring the original plan of eight classes during high school to be taken by laptop (roughly one per semester), the state board committee working on implementing the Luna Plan pulled it back to two classes for the entire four-year high school experience.
And instead of deciding that a couple of standard classes should be taken, say American Government, they're going to let students choose from a couple hundred offerings. That means a school district can't get rid of their American Government teacher because while some kids may choose to take it online, some won't (but the school districts still have to cut teachers because of the reduced funding).
Kids will get a lot more opportunities to take different classes, however, including taking PE online (I'm not kidding).
Still, state funding pays for 800 fewer teachers. Furthermore, the school districts don't get paid for the time a student is in class taking an on-line class, even though they have to provide the classroom and someone to watch it (plus rewiring it to provide enough power for all those laptops -- another expense). All of which cuts funding even more to districts.
Every student would still get a laptop, however, even if he's only taking two online classes over four years.
But they don't have them, yet.
The state decided it didn't have the money to buy that many computers. In fact, much to the surprise of the legislature and the state's department of education -- but not anyone who's tried to buy one recently -- nobody seems interested in selling laptops at the roughly $250 per machine the legislature budgeted for them. Maybe they thought they'd get a discount for bulk buying, but historically computer companies have never done that. Why should they? Especially when they have a market required by law to buy from them.
So the state decided they'd start by giving teachers laptops this year, instead of students. That way, the teachers could learn how to use them in the classroom first (funding for that instruction is largely up to the school districts, which is a further drain on being able to pay for teachers).
That sounds like a good idea. In fact, just ask any teacher in Mountain Home how well they like their state-supplied laptop.
You'll get a funny look, because they don't have them.
Two years into the Luna Plan, two years into a five-year program of continuous spending cuts approved by the legislature, in which teachers would be replaced by technology, and there's not a state-supplied laptop in sight around here.
Yet, somehow, Luna and the state thinks everything is going great. It's an election year, and although Luna isn't up for re-election for two more years, all of the legislature is. Of course they're going to tell you everything is fine. Why shouldn't you believe these kind-hearted, thoughtful, intelligent souls?
Just don't ask them where the laptops are.
* * *
Amazingly, for one of the few times in Idaho history, voters upset with legislation managed to get enough signatures together to put a referendum on the three laws passed two years ago that, together, constitute what has been called the Luna Plan.
Only one of the three laws in question actually has to do with the laptops and public school funding.
Of the other two laws, one was designed to take money from the pool for teacher salaries and turn it into "pay for performance."
Which sounds OK, until you try and figure out a fair way to actually do that. Then it gets a lot, lot harder.
Use standardized test scores? Not all classes are tested by state tests, which focus on reading, writing and arithmetic (how do you test band or drama classes?). And the state, in order to save itself money, quit testing twice a year, at the start and end of the school year, like it used to. That might have given a good measure for those classes actually tested. But instead, they only test once now, which is a much less accurate number on student progress over the course of a year.
I taught high school at one time, a long time ago, and one of my classes was the "bonehead" history class (a word never technically used, but it was what it was). Although it actually was one of my favorite classes, it was composed of kids for whom a C was a really good grade and special ed kids being "mainstreamed" into a regular classroom setting. I liked those kids. They were fun and teaching them was a great challenge that I enjoyed. But if my pay was going to be based on how well they did on a standardized state test, I wouldn't touch that class with a ten-foot pole. Why would any teacher?
Pay for performance is one of those things that sounds great on the surface, but the devil is in the details, and it starts to fall apart at the level of actually making it work fairly.
The third law in the Luna Plan was essentially designed to break the teachers' unions across the state and limit their ability to negotiate for little things like workplace conditions and safety considerations (go to the voter's guide sent to all households by the Idaho Secretary of State's office for the details and pro and con arguments on the three resolutions).
I've never figured out why the legislature was so fired up about destroying teacher unions. It's not like they're much of a threat.
The Idaho Education Association, as a teacher lobbying organization, is just about worthless, since far too many legislators see its membership as spawns of satan. And because Idaho's a "right to work" state (meaning you can't be compelled to join a union to get a job), it's rare for any school district to have even two-thirds of its teachers belong to the union -- although Luna and the legislature have helped spur some small gains in membership recently.
Teacher's unions just aren't very powerful in Idaho (for that matter, no union in Idaho is). Why the legislature wanted to stand on the neck of teachers after they'd already knocked them down for the count is beyond me.
After all, they're making sure there are fewer and fewer teachers all the time to even potentially belong to a union. And if you don't like how many kids are in your child's overcrowded classroom, that's why. It's legislative policy.
Maybe a laptop will solve that problem.
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