Thousands of Idahoans participated in a telephone town hall led by Gov. Butch Otter and other advocates of school reform. Monday night’s forum was paid for by the state’s largest business lobby, the Idaho Association of Commerce and Industry.
Otter was joined by the author of the “Students Come First” plan, Idaho Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Luna and the two chairmen of the Legislature’s education committees, Sen. John Goedde and Rep. Bob Nonini, both Republicans from Coeur d’Alene.
Otter invited recipients of the call to join the one-hour forum in a recorded message, and they could choose whether to participate in the live call.
Participants were asked two questions, according to IACI President Alex LaBeau, basically: "Do you support education reform?" and "Do you support raising taxes or not?" The reform question did not specifically mention the Luna-Otter “Students Come First” plan.
Paul Whitted of Garden Valley told the Statesman he joined the call because he’s very interested in the topic, but that he felt “snookered by Gov. Otter and his buddies” because the call was a “sales job.”
“Not a single caller who was allowed to ask a question had anything negative to say,” said Whitted, a retired marketing researcher. “There were clearly a lot of people who were opposed, but not a single one was allowed to ask a question.”
Otter’s communications director, Mark Warbis, moderated the forum and chose the questions.
The forum was suggested by LaBeau, and cost between $15,000 and $20,000, LaBeau said Tuesday. Otter, Luna, Goedde and Nonini met in IACI’s offices in downtown Boise for the call.
“You cut through a lot of the filters and you can reach a fairly broad audience fairly quickly and effectively,” LaBeau said. IACI is joined by the Boise Metro Chamber of Commerce and the Idaho Business Coalition for Education Excellence in supporting the Luna-Otter plan.
Monday's forum is just one example of a paid-media blitz on both sides of the issue. Opponents are advertising on television and in newspapers and proponents have run a series of full-page newspaper ads and a direct-mail campaign. The Idaho Education Association also has a Facebook page and issues Twitter messages urging citizens to call legislators and oppose the Otter-Luna bills.
LaBeau said he’s not sure he’ll release the survey results because he has doubts about scientific validity. LaBeau said about 78 percent of respondents said they opposed raising taxes, while education reform was favored by a roughly 60 percent to 40 percent margin.
“I’m not going to put a lot into it because I don’t think it was scientifically random,” LaBeau said. “If I’m not entirely sure it’s credible, I won’t release it.”
The phone numbers are part of what LaBeau calls the largest and most sophisticated voter file in Idaho, with over 700,000 names. He wouldn’t say how many people were contacted, except that it was in the thousands, and that 400 or 500 people sought to put questions to the panel.
Don Davis of Horseshoe Bend told the Statesman he was on the call. He said recipients were told 54 percent favored reform and 46 percent opposed it. Davis said no questions were taken from opponents of the plan.
LaBeau said questions were screened by IACI’s Chicago vendor and then posed by Warbis, the Otter aide. But LaBeau said callers did not have to say they supported reform to make the queue for questions. “There’s only so much time for questions,” LaBeau said.
Liz Ratcliff, a former Ada County Democratic Party chairwoman and former teacher, said she was on the call and pressed the button on her phone saying she opposed reform because “that’s a ‘When did you stop beating your wife?’ question.”
“Everybody’s for some sort of reform,” said Ratcliff. “Raising revenue; reducing class sizes; more emphasis on liberal arts; examining the role charter schools are playing in the budget; requiring charter schools take all students.”
After answering the prompt saying she wanted to ask a question, Ratcliff said she was told to wait for a beep. But she said she heard nothing for about five minutes and then hung up. “Nothing was happening. I couldn’t hear what was going on.”
Otter, Luna, Goedde did not immediately reply to requests for comment Tuesday morning. Nonini declined comment.
Telephone town halls have been used by Idaho elected officials and candidates for several years, but LaBeau said Monday’s call was the first time IACI had done so on a specific issue during the Legislature. Idaho's Sunshine Law requires disclosure of monthly lobbying expenses by the 10th day of the following month.
S.B. 1108 would limit the collective bargaining rights of the teachers’ union and end continuing contracts, commonly called tenure, for new teachers.
S.B. 1110 is a pay-for-performance plan for teachers.
S.B. 1113 implements the classroom reforms, including online classes and technology.