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After defeat, Luna plans to push merit pay in 2013

Public schools chief Tom Luna suggested Nov. 12 he’ll ask the 2013 Idaho Legislature to adopt another pay-for-performance program for teachers, arguing that voters’ rejection of merit bonuses isn’t a sign that they favor the existing way of compensating educators.

But the chairman of a group that helped defeat Luna’s “Students Come First” laws last week was immediately skeptical, saying Luna shouldn’t try to “ram something through” in coming months.

In his first meeting with reporters following the Nov. 6 vote, Luna outlined plans to work with stakeholders, including the Idaho Education Association teachers union, to craft changes with broader support. Even so, Luna contends lawmakers shouldn’t wait beyond the session starting in January, saying it would show a lack of leadership to merely establish an interim committee to “kick the can down the road.”

“Waiting is not what’s best for our children,” Luna said. “We’re not going to go to the Legislature and propose legislation that is so controversial that it’s going to drive the same kind of emotions you’ve seen in the past couple years. But there are things that we all agree are good parts of the legislation.”

In renewing his call for merit bonuses, Luna said the only way Idaho’s Republican-controlled Legislature will support anything more than nominal increases in teacher salaries is if they’re tied to performance.

Under the existing system, educators are paid according to a grid system combining experience with education levels.

“The most you’re going to get out of the Legislature under the salary grid is a healthy debate over whether we should increase it 2 or 3 percent,” Luna told reporters.

In an interview Nov. 12, Idaho Education Association President Penni Cyr wouldn’t rule out the possibility that her group would support some education changes for the 2013 session. But Cyr called it “premature” for Luna to be singling out ideas from a package voters dumped only days ago, without waiting for others to weigh in.

“Nobody should be making any decisions now,” Cyr said. “Idaho voters just spoke. They overwhelmingly said, ‘This is not the right direction to go.’ Any pay-for-performance plan needs to be research abased and proven, to make a difference in student achievement.”

In addition to merit pay, Idaho voters rejected Luna’s “Students Come First” laws’ limits on collective bargaining, teacher job protections and a $180 million plan to equip high school students and their teachers with laptops.

Mike Lanza, a parent who led the “Vote No on Propositions 1, 2 and 3″ campaign, said Luna’s suggestion just six days after the election that a merit-pay plan be resurrected appears to ignore the will of voters.

“The vote was clearly as much a referendum on Tom Luna’s leadership as it was on his laws,” Lanza said. “He should recognize that and frankly not try to ram something through when a lot of committed people have decided they want to work on some real reform.”

During a nearly hour-long session with reporters, Luna said he took several days off following the election, to sleep in until 7 a.m. and renew gym workouts — to relieve stress that’s been building in months preceding Nov. 6.

In a candid moment, he acknowledged some missteps as he sought to promote his education package.

For instance, he regrets blaming “union thugs” for, among other things, vandalizing his truck during the heated 2011 session, saying assigning blame without anybody being apprehended may have alienated some people.

“I wish I wouldn’t have used that phrase, because obviously it was used over and over,” Luna said.

Luna also said he had never anticipated his laws would become the targets of a recall, where foes would be able to single out specific portions — the laptop provisions, for instance, or limits on job protections — to convince voters that the measures should be dumped in their entirety.

“Maybe rather than three bills, there should have been a couple dozen bills … so they could have been weighed on their own merits,” he said. “With the referendum, it’s very easy to find one or two things in a very complex bill.”

 

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