Wednesday, June 3, 2015

The Setting of the Moon: Tom Luna's Short Time on Stage

Tom Luna served briefly as state superintendent of instruction for the state of Idaho. Luna was the darling of the online education corporations. In fact, K12 Inc. actually brought him to D.C. during his campaign for state superintendent and threw a fund raiser for him. It worked; he got elected; and K12 Inc. profited royally from his tenure.

There's more to the story of Tom Luna — who has largely disappeared from the political scene — and few are as well positioned to tell the story tas an Idaho teacher. Enter Jon Ziegler, a twenty-five year veteran of Idaho public education. I have invited Jon to present his thoughts on what the brief life of Tom Luna as state superintendent added up to. Forthwith, Jon's thoughts:

There are two positions concerning Tom Luna, former state superintendent of education for Idaho:
  1. His own, which he published on January 2, 2015
  2. And the position taken by most professional educators:
Having been a very polarizing politician, it is hard to find middle ground where Tom Luna is concerned.

Since his Wikipedia page appears to be run by a supporter, I will list the accomplishments of his Students Come First "initiative" as they are enumerated at Wikipedia.

Idaho school reforms
As a member of the Nampa School Board from 1994 to 2002, Luna supported school vouchers and tax credits for private schools as a means to increase competition in education.
Running for the Superintendent of Public Instruction in Idaho position in 2006, Luna focused on promoting charter schools. Columnist William McGurn stated that he found Luna's business experience and lack of education degree, "refreshing".

Students Come First
The centerpiece of education reforms spearheaded by Luna following his 2006 election as Superintendent is a package of legislation known as Students Come First. Among the reforms in the Students Come First package, passed by the Idaho Legislature in 2011, are:

  • New limits to the collective bargaining rights of Idaho teachers
  • Raised the annual minimum pay for new teachers by $345
  • Established a performance-based merit pay system for teachers
  • Increase classroom sizes in grades 4 through 12
  • Phased out tenure, instead implementing one- and two-year rolling contracts for every new teacher and administrator, depending on experience
  • Required online course credit for high school graduation
  • Provided laptop computers for all high school teachers and high school students and classroom Wi-Fi.
Luna's proposed reforms have been challenged though ballot initiatives. Among the opponents is the Idaho Education Association, a state teachers union. Petitions challenging the Students Come First legislation collected enough signatures to place the matter on the state's November 6, 2012, general election ballot. There were three separate ballot propositions because the reforms were passed with three legislative bills. Voters rejected all three propositions on November 6, striking down the reforms.
Luna's "laws" were nothing more than a reworking of Michelle Rhee's disaster in Washington, D.C. As stated in the above blog, "Students Come First" was not very original. A less biased assessment of Luna’s "reforms" than that found at Wikipedia looks like this.

Working as they do in a Right to Work state before Luna was elected to office, Idaho teachers were already in a precarious situation in regard to collective bargaining. The legislature's passage of Luna’s initiative gave school districts the opportunity for free-for-alls in how they negotiated with teachers. Teachers’ salaries were cutback because of the economy, the administration claimed, but more likely the cutback was due to the wish to purchase laptops and Wi-Fi. One school board member was pushing for a 13% decrease in pay, and wanted to stipulate that it was permanent. It was not until an IEA attorney showed up for negotiations that things calmed down a bit. Our district saw a 6.5% "non-permanent" reduction in pay. That was passed in the Spring of 2010. Teachers are still trying to recoup these losses. Raising the annual minimum wage for new teachers by under $30 a month was a sham. Under Luna, new teacher salaries dropped from $36,000 (statewide) to $29,000 (statewide). So with a smile, Luna told the new teachers that they were getting a "raise."

Merit pay, which I do not necessarily have issues with, was another reason wages were cut for teachers. Luna needed to fund merit pay. Of course within districts, merit pay tends toward crony-ism. To help support his position for merit pay, Luna had Frank Vandersloot (owner or a large radio network and chief financier of American Heritage Charter School) write op-eds concerning how bonuses and merit pay have brought excellence to his company. Currently Vandersloot is suing "Mother Jones" for their the magazine's having called Vandersloot a "gay-basher." Also, the Albertson [grocery chain] Foundation lobbied hard for merit pay.

Luna's position on class size was that the number of students in a classroom did not matter. Imagine, the end of August, 40 students in your classroom, and no oppressive heat (being in Eastern Idaho most schools do not possess air conditioning.) And that has nothing to do with the educational ramifications with having 40+ students in a class.

Under Luna, teachers who had tenure kept it and were to be grandfathered in. New teachers would be on rolling contracts. Although the laws were dumped by Republican voters, this portion of Luna's "laws" has been the most lasting (outside of pay cuts). School administrators used this to move teachers around districts without challenges.

Online courses were a bit duplicitous. Idaho already had the Idaho Distance Learning Academy. Being a large, and somewhat under-populated state, Idaho had implemented distance learning programs for students in rural areas. Instead, Mr. Luna insisted that students take online courses from companies the districts had to pay out of pocket for. In some way, he was duplicating services. Commercial breaks throughout the state were not complete without K12 Inc. ads. If I am not mistaken Tom Luna's sister, has been investigated concerning her participation with various broadband providers. She has continued to be employed by the Idaho State legislature. As of today, according to the Rexburg Standard Journal, she has been appointed to a position with...Homeland Security. And now the FCC is investigating both Teresa and Tom in connection with the letting of a contract for broadband services to schools when Tom was State Superintendent.

Laptops for every student is a still a financial burden for the state. Wireless carriers have been suing the State Department of Education for the money involved with the contracts Tom Luna signed. Until recently, the newspapers did not even mention this was Tom Luna's doing. The headlines just stated that Sherri Ybarra, his successor, was strapped with these contracts to deliver wireless to school districts (which most districts already had), for computers, for which they were no longer required to purchase.

I could continue, but as stated before, the on-line literature concerning Tom Luna is endless. Before the members of his own party voted down the "Luna Laws," Tom Luna was being spoken of in the press as being Idaho's future governor. Although his tenure as Idaho's school's chief has caused chaos within the state's education system (regardless of what he writes), his laws being voted down saved the state from Luna being governor. It destroyed him politically, for now. The state legislators, who jumped on his ship of error, do not mention him. It is as if he never existed. Locally, his former hardcore supporters dropped him for his endorsing the Common Core State Standards.

Thank you for the opportunity to express myself.

Jon Ziegler is a California ex-patriot living in Eastern Idaho. He has taught since. I have taught emotionally disturbed students, regular classroom classes, primarily special education along with math, literature, PE, and history. Currently he teaches at an alternative high school. He graduated with a degree in history, and a minor in philosophy, from Brigham Young University . He received a graduate degree in Instructional Leadership and a second degree in Special Education from National University - Sacramento.

Gene V Glass
Arizona State University
National Education Policy Center
University of Colorado Boulder

The opinions expressed here are those of the authors and do not represent the official position of the National Education Policy Center, Arizona State University, nor the University of Colorado Boulder.