BOISE -- Public schools chief Tom Luna on Monday detailed a list of changes to his plan to overhaul Idaho's K-12 education system, further easing online course requirements for students and making other changes, but doing little to appease leaders of the state teachers union who have condemned the plan.
While the sweeping overhaul he unveiled at the start of the 2011 Idaho Legislature calls for increasing classroom sizes to pay for a bulk of the education reforms, school districts would have the flexibility to find the money elsewhere and could lower teacher pay instead, Luna said.
Debate over the plan to restructure how Idaho's scarce education dollars are spent has so far dominated the session and emotions are running high. How high? Luna said he had to file a police report after an angry teacher showed up at his 71-year-old mother's home in Nampa on Saturday. No arrests were made.
"It was just totally uncalled for," Luna said. "When you look at the e-mails that have gone out, where they've listed people's addresses, they've listed their home phone numbers, they've said 'Go talk to their neighbors and tell their neighbors to go tell them not to support this . it's just union thuggery as far as I'm concerned."
The two bills were introduced earlier this month in the Idaho Senate, where they are now being reworked amid opposition from the teachers, parents and some lawmakers. The Senate Education Committee is serving as an initial battleground for the plan and the panel held four days of public testimony last week.
Luna first unveiled the overhaul in January and called for boosting technology in the classroom and equipping high school students with laptops while requiring them to take eight online courses before they graduate. Idaho would tie some teacher pay to merit, and award bonuses for teachers who take on hard-to-fill positions and leadership roles.
An educator's starting salary would increase from $29,655 to $30,000, but the state would eliminate tenure for new educators and instead offer two-year rolling contracts.
Class sizes would increase slightly to help pay for the reforms, and the state would shed about 770 teaching jobs as classrooms grow and more courses are taught online, Luna said.
Luna previously told lawmakers he wanted high school students to start carrying laptops in the ninth grade and take two online course credits each year, for a total of eight credits. But the bills he drafted and presented to lawmakers at the start of this month would only require students to take six online course credits before they graduate.
Under proposed changes, students would only have to take four online credits, and school districts would decide when they get the state-issued laptops.
The implementation of the laptop program would also take place over the course of 18 months and students would no longer get the computers after they graduate, as the legislation initially proposed. School districts could instead re-distribute the computers to younger students, under proposed changes to the plan.
The plan is being reintroduced as three bills, with the pay-for-performance plan for teachers before lawmakers as a separate piece of legislation, Luna said.
"We heard good ideas and good comments and we responded accordingly," Luna said.
A list of changes circulated among state lawmakers earlier Monday did not address a piece of the plan drawing some of the most criticism -- increasing class sizes to help pay for the reforms.
Luna clarified that school districts would have flexibility in whether they increase class sizes. The state Department of Education heard from many teachers who said they would rather take a pay cut then see their classroom sizes increase.
The legislation will allow them to make that choice, Luna said.
While the changes were in response to public testimony on the plan, Idaho Education Association President Sherri Wood said they do not fully address the outpouring of concerns from teachers and parents over classroom sizes, and the requirement that students take online courses.
"Those things are still there," Wood said. "These changes do not address the issues that were debated thoroughly last week."