Idaho education: The election spin season has begun

Here is a draft of our Wednesday editorial.

Nineteen out of 20, or 95 percent, is worth an A in the classroom. By that measure, Aug. 28 was a very good day for Idaho schools.

Voters went to the polls in 20 school districts; in 19, property tax levies or bond issues passed. The lone setback: A $5 million construction bond in Southeast Idaho’s North Gem School District received 66 percent support, falling just two votes shy of the two-thirds supermajority required for passage.

In the Treasure Valley, levies passed in six districts, including Nampa and Kuna. Levies, unlike bond issues, can pass with a simple majority — but five of the six local levies received more than 60 percent of the vote.

Across the state, the voters spoke. Idahoans committed their money — collected from the perennially unpopular property tax — to K-12. They displayed their willingness to take care of their own, and support local schools: a powerful message in a state with a tight-fisted state Legislature that funds per-student school spending at a paltry No. 50 in the nation.

Most years, that would be that. A good day for schools — and more importantly, a good day for students. A message to the Legislature.

But this autumn, we are heading into a defining and hotly debated election about the future of Idaho schools. That means we are staring at an autumn of spin.

On Thursday, Idaho Education Association President Penni Cyr tried to seize on the school election news. As a leading critic of the Students Come First K-12 overhaul — which will appear as Propositions 1, 2 and 3 on the statewide ballot — Cyr predicted Idahoans will overturn the laws on Nov. 6.

“We expect voters will send the same message then as they did (last week). Voters will support local schools and local control by rejecting the laws and voting no on Props 1, 2 and 3. Idaho kids deserve nothing less.”

Let’s keep perspective.

Last week’s property tax decisions were not a direct mandate on Students Come First: laws that, if upheld, will rewrite the teacher negotiation process, establish a merit pay system and accelerate the use of technology in the classroom.

Critics such as Cyr can argue that the laws would supersede local collective bargaining, and force all districts to follow a statewide model for merit pay and online learning. Hence her nod to local control, a time-honored Idaho political maxim.

But local control is just that: It empowers voters in the state’s 115 school districts to react to local conditions, to consider the way state budget decisions affect local schools. It’s risky to read too much into the results, even when districts enjoyed a whopping 95 percent success rate.

Last week, voters in some districts simply decided to replace expiring school levies, or replace dollars that came from the feds’ economic stimulus plan, said Melissa McGrath, a spokeswoman for state schools superintendent Tom Luna, the author of the Students Come First laws.

Sure, there is spin on both sides. The Luna camp is motivated to downplay discord over Students Come First, just as Cyr and her allies is motivated to talk it up. Between now and Nov. 6, the two sides aren’t likely to agree about much of anything regarding Idaho education. It’ll make for a long, short-tempered campaign.