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Education hearing: ‘We support innovation’

No online learning system can perform as well as a real real person, teachers from around Idaho told lawmakers Jan. 21 at a public hearing.

An overflow crowd made of up parents, educators and many others filled several hearing rooms in the Statehouse to tell the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee at a public hearing what they thought of a major overhaul of the state’s public schools.

More than 130 people signed up to testify, and dozens more said they planned to submit written testimony. Many traveled from the far reaches of Idaho.

Among other things, the plan drafted by Tom Luna, the state’s superintendent of public instruction, would implement a pay-for-performance plan that would reward teachers based on student test scores. It would also phase out tenure in public schools, offering new teachers and administrators a two-year contract.

The plan would increase classroom sizes and require high school students to take some of their classes online.

Many speakers told of their own experiences with online learning, describing balky servers, ineffective remote teachers, and faulty materials. Christina Hartman, who teaches English at Bear Lake High School, said 75 percent of the students in Bear Lake School Districts were failing their online classes.

“Our students are not successful without an effective teacher to interact with,” Hartman said.

Brian Potter, an English teacher in Potlatch, told the committee that his older son, a senior who will be valedictorian at Potlatch this year, could not apply to schools like Stanford University or Dartmouth College because they don’t accept online foreign language credits – which is all Potlatch offers.

“Is the attrition of 1,100 education-related jobs really helpful to Idaho’s economy?” Potter asked. Luna’s plan calls for the elimination of about 770 teachers and 300 staff over the next two years, with some of their teaching roles assumed by online classes from out-of-state vendors. “Is it really student-centered to remove effective educators?”

The plan also calls for the state to buy every ninth-grader a laptop, an idea that met with strong approval from Lorna Finman, founder of a technology company called LCF Enterprises in Post Falls. Finman told the committee of several ways business and non-profits had helped local students succeed using technology.

“The world has changed and we are competing with other countries for jobs,” said Finman, who told the committee she has a doctorate in physics from Stanford. “There can be no more business as usual.”

But many teachers and parents questioned whether ninth-graders were responsible enough to be charged with laptops. They told stories of viruses caught by computers and of drinks spilled on keyboards. They noted that providing laptops would require extra costs for support services and software, and questioned how the state would assist students who did not have access to the internet at home.

Some parents asked the committee to consider that students could use the laptops to gain access to pornography and other prohibited sites. And teachers said they had seen motivated students fail at online courses, or ask their school teachers for help.

“I love technology; it is a great resource,” said Lucinda Moebius, a teacher for 12 years who said her masters and doctoral studies in education had focused on the use of technology in education. Moebius told the committee she had researched programs that give students laptops and found many states had abandoned such programs.

“Schools would be better served by installing interactive white boards and a bank of computers in the classroom,” Moebius said.

School districts do not yet know exactly how the state Department of Education plan would affect their staffing or funding. Much depends on the actions of the Legislature over the next several weeks.

But it’s clear that with money very limited, Idaho must change the way it delivers education, said Jennifer Swindell, the public information officer for the Caldwell School District.

“We understand the economic climate and that’s why we support Superintendent Luna’s plan to reform education,” Swindell said. “We cannot sustain the current education model with the current funding mechanisms.

“We support innovation as long as student achievement is the number one priority,” Swindell said.

About Anne Wallace Allen

Anne Wallace Allen is the editor of the Idaho Business Review.


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