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Richard Larsen: Students or Special Interests? What’s Our Top Priority?

October 29th, 2012 by Halli

By Richard Larsen

Insanity is often defined as the process of doing the same thing over and over again expecting different results. While sanity may not be in question, logic certainly is as it relates to opposition to the education reform Propositions on the ballot in November.

In the latest Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) results, the U.S. came in with an international ranking of 49. Compared against international scores, Massachusetts would be #17, and Idaho would be #71. Education Secretary Arne Duncan exclaimed after seeing the results, “For me, it’s a massive wake-up call.”

And considering how Idaho fared against the rest of the world, or even the other states, our wake-up call should be even greater. In light of this data, maintaining the status quo, just doing the same thing we’ve been doing, is perhaps insanity. What’s frightening is the fact that it’s our children’s educational future and their potential as productive members of society that weighs in the balance.

As a state we’re doing well with a 92% graduation rate from high school. But less than half of those are matriculating to college, and only 38% of those students return for their second year of college. That means of 100 Idaho high school graduates, only 16 are in college just a year after graduation. Of those that do go to college, 41% require remediation. This is woeful preparation for our young people, and research shows we are essentially relegating them to lower income jobs in perpetuity. This is unacceptable.

Idahoans can start addressing this unsatisfactory status quo by voting “Yes” on all three education reform Propositions. The Wall Street Journal called Students Come First “the nation’s most sweeping education reform.”

In 1983 I served on the Commission for Excellence in Public Education. We thought, as a commission, that augmenting core curriculum, increasing credit requirements in core subjects, raising the grading requirements, and setting attendance mandates, that we were paving the way for significant improvement in Idaho. Those changes made a difference, but came nowhere near what the benefits will be if these three Propositions are approved, as I detailed in my column last week.

Most inscrutable was the action taken by our Pocatello School Board this week. Not only did they unanimously refuse to endorse the Propositions, but they offered as justification that Students Come First “does nothing to address cost increases local districts would be forced to absorb…erodes the decision-making duties of locally-elected boards and puts these into the hands of the state’s Department of Education,” and it removes the ability for local school boards to “allocate their resources.” This rationale is fallacious and not supportable by fact.

By contrast, Idaho School Boards Association (ISBA), representing over 560 locally elected school board members and over 250 charter school board members, fully supports and endorses Proposition 1. Their reasons are in direct opposition to those cited by our local school board. The ISBA explains that, “The changes in the education reform law affected by Proposition 1 have restored those local school board responsibilities back where they belong. Idaho school boards are better because of these education reform laws, and we can’t imagine going backwards. Help us do our job effectively. We encourage Idahoans to vote for local governance and vote YES.”

It should be noted as well that the Idaho Education Alliance has endorsed Proposition 2, which is the pay-for-performance component of Students Come First. Proposition 3 reads like it could be straight out of the Secretary of Education’s “Digital Transformation” program.

The Pocatello School Board also claimed the propositions are unfunded from the state. This is factually erroneous. Rep. Mack Shirley, Vice-Chairman of the House Education Committee, who is himself a former teacher, principal, and instructor at the college level points out, “Claims from the opposition that these propositions are unfunded mandates and will raise taxes are false. These laws are in state statutes; the funding sources are already provided without any increased burden upon the taxpayer. The charges that technology will replace teachers are not true. Computers will assist teachers, not replace them. Teachers will remain in the classroom with more instructional tools and improved compensational opportunities over the present system. Voting these propositions down would, in my opinion, be a serious setback.”

Our local school board is intended to represent the interests of the citizens and taxpayers they serve. It would appear, based on the hard facts, that they have rather become a mouthpiece for the special interests opposing the measures, abdicating their primary function of representing district patrons.

The Pocatello School District obviously sees the merits of Proposition 3, for they were one of the first to apply for the mobile technology for students. And if they truly believe they’re giving up local control, they ought to read the actual propositions, rather than the talking points provided by the special interest groups opposing them. With Students Come First, they get more local control than ever before.

Taxpayers have nothing to fear, for the Propositions are fully funded by statute. Good teachers have nothing to fear for the entire educational apparatus is dependent on their talents and dedication, and they will be better compensated for their excellence. School boards have nothing to fear for they are afforded immense new flexibility and control at the local level. And students have everything to gain. The only losers are the unions that are bankrolling the anti-Students Come First propaganda, and they lose power and leverage, which is itself conducive to improved flexibility and educational excellence.

If we put students first, ahead of all other special and self-interests, we defy the status quo, and our vote on the Propositions will be Yes, Yes, and Yes.

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