Idaho's education politician shows his stripes

Here's a draft of our Sunday editorial.

Former House Speaker Tip O’Neill once observed that all politics is local.

Idaho Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Luna offered a variation on that theme last week, proving that all politics can be localized.

With enough effort, anyway.

On Monday night, Luna weighed in on a labor dispute unfolding 1,450 miles from his Boise office.

“President Obama’s refusal to speak out against the teachers’ union strike in Chicago represents an abdication of leadership,” said Luna, who added that Obama’s silence “yields to the whims of special interests at the cost of students.”

The easy default here would be to ask what exactly Luna was thinking, going beyond his boundaries and jurisdiction. But that question also is a lazy default, when the answer — or answers — are readily apparent. Luna seems to be thinking about the next election, or perhaps the next job, or possibly both. Thinking, in other words, like the instinctive politician he has shown himself to be.

First and foremost, Luna didn’t chime in on the Chicago strike on a whim or on his own accord. He spoke on behalf of GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney, whose campaign issued the Luna statement.

Luna, an adviser to Romney on education issues, worked the right words into the script. “Mitt Romney will not put politics over principle. He will lead.”

Words like this — coupled with Luna’s position on Romney’s team — will only feed into speculation that Luna is a potential education secretary nominee in a Romney Cabinet.

Of course, Luna has his own election to worry about in November — three referenda to retain or reject his controversial Students Come First K-12 overhaul laws. And Luna’s little foray into the Chicago teachers’ strike played right into that script as well.

A day after his initial statement, spokeswoman Melissa McGrath clarified her boss’ statement — and, if anything, sharpened it. Here’s the key part: “The strike in Chicago shows that it doesn’t matter whether you go to Illinois, Wisconsin or Idaho. It’s clear there is one opponent to education reform and that’s the leaders of the teachers’ union.”

There is the election over Students Come First, in a tidy soundbite. Facing an election that may define his political career — even more than his 2006 election and 2010 re-election — Luna knows exactly how he wants to define the combatants. The reformer vs. an obstructionist union. Given Idaho voters’ antipathy toward unions, it’s probably a smart political strategy.

As for the Luna-union relationship, that’s a lost cause — and certainly not a consideration during a campaign season.

Say this for Luna. He is skilled and hardly bashful about playing politics.

Sometimes that yields good results — like in 2010, when he convinced fellow Land Board Republicans to take an extra $22 million from an endowment reserve fund and put it into education. He put his colleagues on the spot, a calculated gamble, and it paid off.

Sometimes the results are, well, political — as in 2011, when he rolled out Students Come First with little input from stakeholders.
Here, Luna took an entire state by surprise with a sweeping plan to rewrite the teacher collective bargaining process, establish a merit pay system and push for classroom technology and online education. As it turned out, Luna didn’t need to build a coalition behind his plan, as he used the power of the GOP supermajority to push it through the Legislature.

So, when Luna spoke up last week about a teachers’ strike in Chicago, what was he thinking? If you have to ask, you really haven’t been paying attention.

Students come first?

Nope. Luna comes first, as he uses the Idaho republican sheep and their antipathy toward public education to feed his appetite for higher office. Baaaaaaaaaaa.......