Last week the state of Idaho signed a $180 million contract with Hewlett Packard to provide laptops to all high school students by the fall of 2015. It was an ambitious move. The one thing that makes it problematical is that on November 6, the entire state could repeal the law under which the contract was authorized.
In fact, Idaho voters will decide whether to repeal a whole package of education measures signed by Governor Butch Otter last year. The laptop provision is just one of them. Others restrict collective bargaining for teachers, do away with teacher tenure, tie some teacher pay to student performance, and require online classes.
In a conservative state where the presidential vote isn’t in doubt, the fate of the education laws has taken center stage on the November ballot. Those who favor keeping the laws call the changes Students Come First. Opponents refer to them as the "Luna laws" a reference to Tom Luna, the state superintendent of public instruction, who is their chief architect.
"This is the most important decision that Idahoans will probably ever make about their children's future," Luna says. He and his allies argue that the laws reclaim school spending control from unions, help attract and retain the best teachers and give all students the technological skills they need to compete in a global economy.
The other side doesn't see it that way. They believe the laws decrease local control, strip money from underfunded schools to pay for technology and online courses, and encourage teachers to tailor their instruction to standardized tests, which help determine their performance bonuses.
"This is supposedly about education reform but there's absolutely nothing in any of these laws that is a proven method of improving achievement," says Mike Lanza, chair of Vote No on Proposition 1,2,3, the campaign leading the effort to repeal the laws.
Both sides plan to spend millions of dollars to influence the decision. Opponents of the bill have raised more than $2 million so far, according to the most recent campaign finance filings, with at least $1.75 million of that coming from the National Education Association, whose executive director, John Stocks, is a native Idahoan and has come out publicly against the laws. The amount of spending against the laws is more than Republican Governor Otter raised for his successful 2010 re-election campaign.
On the other side, three separate committees, Yes for Idaho Education, the Idaho Federation of Republican Women, and Parents for Education Reform have each raised hundreds of thousands of dollars. "I can't recall any ballot measure generating this kind of funding before," says Gary Moncrief, a political science professor at Boise State University.
Luna and his allies have gotten support from some national figures, including former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, who mentioned the laws in his speech at the Republican National Convention and held a fundraiser to support the efforts. But the pro-Luna side has been far outraised by opponents of the laws.
That fundraising, driven heavily by the NEA, has itself become a focus of the campaign. A recent ad by Luna supporters contains snippets from a speech by former NEA lawyer Bob Chanin which appears to indicate that the union supports repealing the laws to preserve its power rather than improve schools. The speech in the ad was delivered years before passage of the Idaho laws and has been criticized by opponents of the law as taken out of context, but Ken Burgess, campaign director for Yes for Idaho Education, defends the spirit of the television spot.
"We wanted people to have a better understanding that these aren't Idahoans," he says.
The NEA declined to comment on its contributions to the race, pointing instead to a statement by the Idaho Education Association thanking teachers across the country for supporting efforts to repeal the laws. Lanza says that the focus on NEA contributions obscures the grassroots support for the repeal.
"It wouldn't be on the ballot if there wasn't a great public dissatisfaction with these laws," he says.
A donation supporting the laws has generated its own controversy. Secretary of State Ben Ysura sued a non-profit group in favor of the laws to disclose its donors. The group, Education Voters of Idaho, spent $200,000 in September to pay for a television ad supporting the laws. While the group says that federal law doesn't require disclosure of its donors, Ysura argues that the state's sunshine law does.
In the short term, the legal controversy has stopped the group from spending more on the election.
Polling suggests that the race is close. A recent Idaho Statesman poll showed that voters currently support repealing two of the three laws, with the strongest support for repealing the law that requires online classes and laptops.
While the laws sparked protests when they passed, Moncrief says he was nevertheless surprised by the results of that poll. "My sense was that by the time this vote came down, it would be really hard for people to sustain this kind of anger," he says. "But apparently I was wrong."
He characterizes the race as a tossup and says it could be decided by the large number of voters identified as undecided in the poll.
Those undecided voters will be the target of a final spending blitz as the election nears. The NEA just pumped in $740,000 of its $1.75 million last week. Frank VanderSloot, an Idaho billionaire and Mitt Romney's national finance co-chair, has spent more than $350,000 so far supporting the laws through his businesses, and paid for an ad that first aired late last week featuring Romney talking about education reform and his opposition to teachers unions.
While other national organizations haven't spent as heavily in the election as the NEA, at least one national education group is stepping in to support Luna's laws.
In a filing that will be made public tomorrow (September 30), StudentsFirst, an organization started by former DC schools chief Michelle Rhee, will contribute a "six-figure" amount to help with get-out-the vote efforts, according to a source familiar with StudentsFirst's donations. "We're not actively working in Idaho in the same way that we're working in many other states," says Tim Melton, Vice President of Legislative Affairs for the group. "But we felt it was important to give these student-centered reforms ... a fighting chance to keep helping kids."
Moncrief says that the impact of the education vote could spill over into other races and will likely have a lasting impact on the political future of Luna, who has been talked about as a potential future candidate for governor and a potential U.S. education secretary in a Romney administration. "If the no side were to win this vote, I think that's a pretty substantial blow to Tom Luna," Moncrief says. "He's put a lot of his career eggs in this basket."