Three years before Idaho Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Luna and Gov. Butch Otter pushed "Students Come First" through the Legislature, Otter warned Luna that such changes required buy-in from teachers, says Otter's former top education aide.
Clete Edmunson was Otter's point man on education at the Legislature in 2008 and 2009. Earlier, he was elected as a Republican to three House terms before joining Otter's staff in 2007.
Edmunson said in a guest opinion submitted to the Statesman on Friday that he was present when Otter told Luna that Luna should vet his reform ideas with teachers, parents, administrators and school board members.
"I distinctly remember the Governor telling Tom that he needed to get the stakeholders on board because it not only affected their livelihood; it was the right thing to do," Edmunson wrote.
Asked to elaborate about the timing and context, Edmunson said the exchange occurred during the 2008 session, when Luna was trying to convince the Senate to approve a merit pay bill.
Said Edmunson in an email: "Tom was pushing hard for his pay for performance plan which was log jammed in the Senate. He really wanted the Governor to endorse his plan. I was standing with the Governor in the inside doorway of our offices by the kitchen part in the Borah building when Tom asked for the Governor's support again. He said, 'Tom, you need to get the support of the stakeholders involved because it affects their livelihoods the most.' He went on with a few more comments about the right thing to do and so forth but the quoted part I remember as if it was yesterday, mainly because my dad, one of the greatest men and the best log cutter I've ever known, always said, 'Don't ever mess with a man's livelihood, unless your itchin' for a fight!"
Luna's bill was defeated in the Senate, 19-16.
Three years later, Luna surprised lawmakers and education stakeholders in January 2011 with his "Students Come First" laws. Otter, however, forcefully backed the plan and signed three bills despite overwhelming public testimony in opposition. Otter also agreed to emergency clauses that made the laws effective immediately in March 2011.
Teacher and parents, however, organized to overturn the laws and voters agreed, widely rejecting Propositions 1, 2 and 3 last week. Luna said on Monday that he will press ahead in the 2013 Legislature with portions of his plan and rejects the idea of an interim legislative committee or blue-ribbon panel to study reform.
Edmunson said a collaborative effort including all stakeholders is vital, writing, "It is my hope that Tom Luna will rise to the occasion, accept the message the people of Idaho have given him and reach out to those of us down in the educational trenches who are working hard every day and have always put our students first, long before it became a catchy political phrase. If we are going to improve education, which should be a daily goal for all us, then we all need to come together and do what’s right for Idaho’s students."
Edmunson taught for 12 years at New Plymouth High School. After failing to convince legislators to adopt Otter's transportation funding increases in 2008 and 2009, Otter helped Edmunson get hired in September 2009 at the Idaho Department of Labor. But Edmunson was let go by Labor Director Roger Madsen in June 2010, with Madsen saying, "It just wasn't working out."
Edmunson has returned to the classroom as an American Government and U.S. History teacher at Murtaugh High School.
I've asked Otter and Luna for comment on Edmunson's op-ed and will update this post if they reply.
Edmunson's opinion follows:
IT’S TIME FOR IDAHOANS TO WORK TOGETHER AGAIN ON EDUCATION
On November 6, a large majority of Idahoans rejected the Student Come First Legislation, commonly known as the “Luna Laws.” As the politicians, lobbyists and other political pundits debate why and how that happened, those of us outside the political echo chambers of that five block part of Boise, we jokingly refer to as the “Emerald City,” can tell you that those laws were rejected because they were simply not good enough for our children and they deserve better.
Now, in the interest of full disclosure, I am a recovering politician myself, having spent three terms in Idaho’s House of Representatives and two sessions advising Governor Otter on education issues. I was with the Governor during the initial stages of what would become the Student Come First legislation but I was always under the assumption that those ideas we discussed on important improvements of education like increasing technology, dual credit classes and pay for performance would all be vetted in a collaborative process with the stakeholders that work with these students on a daily basis, the parents, teachers, administrators and school board members. I distinctly remember the Governor telling Tom that he needed to get the stakeholders on board because it not only affected their livelihood; it was the right thing to do. And Tom has been in Idaho long enough to know that even though Idahoans are typically independent minded people, we always come together to solve problems to get things done the right way.
Sadly, for whatever reason, Tom Luna didn’t take the Governors advice and didn’t work with the stakeholders, choosing instead to take a top-down approach, hurriedly forcing his legislation through the political process in a few short months. Not only is that a recipe for disaster, it is a recipe for bad legislation. If he would have taken the time to sit down and work with the students, parents, teachers, administrators and school board members, the five key stakeholder groups in K-12 education, who work tirelessly to provide the best education possible for our students, we could have come up with some great legislation we could have all supported that would have helped improve the education process in Idaho.
But with the election behind us it is time for us to stop pointing fingers and start working together for the sake of our children. It is my hope that Tom Luna will rise to the occasion, accept the message the people of Idaho have given him and reach out to those of us down in the educational trenches who are working hard every day and have always put our students first, long before it became a catchy political phrase. If we are going to improve education, which should be a daily goal for all us, then we all need to come together and do what’s right for Idaho’s students.
Former member of the Idaho House of Representatives and Education Advisor to Governor Otter
Currently teaches American Government and U.S. History at Murtaugh High School
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