BOISE -- Students, parents, teachers, and business professionals gathered at the KTVB studios Wednesday night to discuss what is a hot topic in Idaho: education reform.
State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Luna was in the hot seat as people with close ties to education, voiced their concerns and asked him their questions.
In the past two years, Idaho's public education system lost about $200 million in funding. This year alone, the state is facing a $137 million budget deficit.
Time for Reform? An Education Forum aired live on KTVB, and focused on three main aspects of Luna's proposed bill:
- Classroom size
- Teacher compensation
- Technology in the classroom
Classroom size was the topic discussed the longest during Wednesday night's forum. Many of the panelists expressed concern over Luna's proposal to increase classroom sizes by one or two students over the next five years.
Kari Overall, a teacher, said that she has about 25 students on average in each of her classes.
She said with bigger class sizes, she can see the difference in participation, and level of test scores. She also said larger classroom sizes makes it more difficult to get to know each student and help them one-on-one.
Overall asked Luna what teachers he has spoke with have said about his idea to raise class sizes.
In response, Luna said class size is not the most important factor, but instead, it is the quality of the teacher in the classroom.
He said if they raise class sizes just enough to fix the budget problem, then we will end up with a system that educates more students with limited resources.
Luna said there is no where left to turn, unless we start cutting salaries, benefits, and cutting school days off the calendar.
He said they are not just raising class sizes but they will be making historic investments on technology, and professional developments for teachers.
A.J. Balukoff, with the Boise School Board, said he has seen thousands of e-mails from concerned citizens who do not want to see larger class sizes.
He asked Luna how he plans to respond to those parents and teachers and if he is willing to modify the legislation with different options to deal with the budget.
Luna said when he spoke with teachers, some said they would rather take a pay cut than have an increased classroom size.
He said that is an option each district will have. Each district will be able to choose how they spend the money they are given. If a school district wants to keep its classroom sizes the same, they can do so, but they have to find other ways to absorb the money to are given.
What is the best way to compensate teachers for the work they are doing in the classroom? That was the second hot topic raised during the education reform panel.
Luna's plan would implement a pay-for-performance plan that would be tied to merit, and would reward teachers with bonuses for taking on hard-to-fill positions, and for taking on leadership roles. The plan would eliminate tenure for new teachers, and would instead offer two-year rolling contracts. Teachers with seniority would no longer be safe from layoffs.
Jonathan Saunders, a student at Timberline High School, raised the question, "Do we want higher test scores? Or do we want teachers who teach how to think critically?"
Luna addressed Saunders concerns by explaining that his plan is not just about tests, but it is about how to measure growth from one year to the next.
Paying teachers based on their performance makes it easier to reward the teachers who are doing a good job, and it helps identify the instructors who are not.
Luna said if kids have an ineffective teacher for an entire year, it makes it nearly impossible for them to catch up later, "We have a system today that makes it impossible to reward great teachers, and difficult to deal with poor teachers. If we want a system that truly puts students first, we have to remove obstacles to both."
He said the bill he is proposing would actually raise teacher pay this year.
His proposal would also pay teachers bonuses and incentives on top of their foundation pay.
He reassured teachers that if they already have tenure, and continuing contracts, they will not lose those.
The new plan will affect new teachers. New instructors will receive a two-year contract, and after the first year, that will be reassessed and the district can decide what to do next.
The use of technology is central to Luna's proposal. It calls for a goal of a ratio of one student to one electronic mobile device within five years, as well as requiring students to take at least six classes online.
Luna hopes this will not only save the state money, but it will also help train Idaho's students to compete in a digital world.
Borah High School senior Megan Harrigfeld raised some concerns about taking online classes. She worries about adding to an already strenuous workload. She also gave an example of a class she took online over her summer vacation where she says she learned nothing.
Luna responded, clarifying the online courses would not be in addition to the current work load; they would instead replace courses taken in a traditional classroom setting.
Exactly how that would work, be it a synchronous or asynchronous online class or a blend of classroom time and online time has not yet been determined.
Speaking to the quality of the education students will get while taking online courses, Luna said, "I assume just like we have some classes in traditional schools that are delivered better and taught better, I suspect the same thing goes on with our online courses. So it's incumbent on us to make sure no matter if you're receiving the instruction in the classroom or through some kind of online course it's a high quality course and it's taught by a highly effective teacher."
There were many questions and concerns about the part of Luna's proposal that calls for students to receive laptops.
Doubters are concerned about the value these laptops will bring to a student's education, whether kids will lose or break them when they are off school grounds, or if they will use them to cheat.
"I think the myth that's out there is that a 9th grader is going to show up for school the first day, we're going to give them a laptop and then we'll never see either of them again. That's never been the idea," Luna said.
Luna hopes to have laptops or other mobile devices given to all students.
He believes the electronics will act as not only their textbooks, but also their calculator, word processor, and their way of accessing online classes.
Luna thinks this streamlining of resources will save the state money and better prepare Idaho's students for high-tech jobs.
According to the plan, each district will own the devices, and it will be at their discretion whether students are allowed to take them home or not.
The state will pay for upkeep on the computers and will also take steps to ensure every device is equipped with protections to help defend students from Internet dangers.
Assuming Luna's plan is enacted, the one-to-one ratio is still five years out, and the first laptop will not appear in an Idaho classroom for 18 months.
The fourth and final hearing on Luna's education reform proposal will be held Thursday.
Following the hearing, the senate education committee will vote on whether to send the proposed bill to the full senate.
You can watch the full broadcast of "Time for Reform? An Education Forum" by clicking here.
The program will re-air on 24/7 from February 10 through February 13 at the following times:
- Thursday: 11 a.m., 2 p.m.
- Friday: 11 a.m., 2 p.m., 7 p.m.
- Saturday: 7 a.m., 1 p.m.
- Sunday: 8 a.m., 11 a.m., 6 p.m.