Luna’s education plan

I’m not sure if State Supt. Tom Luna’s plan for public schools will be good for Idaho, but there must be some merit to it since the Idaho Education Association (IEA) opposed to it.

In terms of structure and culture, the IEA operates with a ‘50s mentality – the 1850s, that is. The overall philosophy is there are no good teachers, nor bad teachers. All should be treated the same, and tenure (which provides long-term job security) is the holy grail for educators.

In discussing Luna’s plan, IEA President Sherri Wood wrote, “Most concerning of all, the plan was formulated with virtually no input from the dedicated teachers of our state: the real experts in the classroom.”

I could imagine what would happen if IEA representatives were at the table. You could count on them to say “no” to slmost everything, including the phasing out of teacher tenure.

I ascribe to the thinking of former Education Secretary Bill Bennett. He said that almost anybody can go into any school, talk to administrators, teachers, kids and janitors, and find out in a short time who are the best teachers and who are the worst.

In Bennett’s mind – and I agree – you can’t pay the quality teachers enough. Bennett said that public education will not go anywhere unless we figure how to pay those quality teachers what they are worth and get rid of the bad teachers.

When I think about Bennett’s statements, I think back to my school days more than 40 years ago at Coeur d’Alene High School. I was fortunate to have some excellent teachers who taught values that I carry with me today. But there also were some real stinkers – people who had no control in their classrooms and no business being in the teaching profession. Those teachers tended to stay around forever, probably because of tenure. Talking with friends who have kids in schools, I doubt if the culture has changed in more than 40 years.

Luna’s plan goes beyond tenure and merit pay. His plan includes increasing the use of technology, giving students a better competitive advantage and generally making the education system work during a time of tight budgets and cost cutting.

“You cannot cut the current system any more,” Luna told the Idaho Statesman. “So the Legislature either has to have the political will to raise taxes to fund the current system or the political will to change the current system. As I see it, those are the two real choices that they have.”

The IEA apparently sees only one path – to fight for the status quo and continue to complain about budget cuts.

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Another vision

During last fall’s election campaign, United Vision of Idaho invited legislative candidates to a forum.

Predictably, quite a few Democratic candidates spoke at the forum. Only one Republican, Dan Loughrey from District 17, spoke that evening. A few people told Dan that he should stay away from that forum and not speak to those “liberals.”

Dan spoke, and he presented a different perspective from the Democrats. But he was treated well, the audience listened and he received polite applause.

It’s easy for conservatives to dismiss United Vision because of the stark contrast of opinions about the role that government should play in today’s society. But I’ll give the group credit for having heart and compassion for people who have gotten lost in the shuffle.

 So here’s United Vision’s response to Gov. Otter’s State-of-the-State message on Monday:

“United Vision for Idaho, a coalition comprised of over nineteen Idaho nonprofits, convened a joint session attended by The National Association of Social Workers, Idaho Community Action Network, The Interfaith Alliance, The Human Rights Education Center, the AFL-CIO, SEIU, the Idaho Association of Government Employees, Boise Central Trades, Eastern Idaho Central Trades, Church Women United, Catholic Charities of Idaho, and others to evaluate the Governor’s State of the State and Budget Address, and issue a  response to the address and the agenda put forth for the 2011 legislative session.

We found that content of the speech largely ignored the real history of how this country was built, and ignored the role that people, not industry have played in the making of some of our greatest achievements.  In fact, the greatest successes we have enjoyed as a people and a nation have resulted from the public and private sector working together, state and federal government working hand-in-hand.  

For what was put forth in Governor Otter’s Speech, we did not hear new ideas to generate revenue for our state. We did not hear the governor discuss ways to capture tax on online services that would generate millions of dollars for our state. We did not hear the mention about the effects reduced services would place on our hospitals and police or prisons, nor the revenue that is lost to Idaho under a privatized prison system. We did not hear the Governor suggest a graduated income tax that would increase contributions from those who have benefited the most through industry, public infrastructure, and investments. Nor did we hear recommendations to close corporate loopholes and limit deductions. No reference was made to the failed policies of the past that has led Idaho from a budget surplus to the deficits we now face precisely through the willful, and continued policy of increasing business exemptions and cutting taxes. Instead, and amidst the underlying anti-government sentiment, as individuals we were told, we will simply have to do more with less.

The Idaho Constitution (Article 1) reads, and we contend that, government is instituted for our “equal protection and benefit.” Nonetheless, Governor Otter believes that our reliance on government constitutes failure and that we must free ourselves from the “soul crushing tyranny of entitlement”.  But, for those who remember, when introduced, social security, like Healthcare today, was considered an “entitlement”. Governor Otter proposed cutting 25 Million dollars from Medicare, while whittling away at Health and Human Services. But if there is any real failing, it is in failing to recognize the consequences this would have on our children, our aging, our veterans, our disabled, hard working, struggling “families”, and entire communities throughout our state.

As Governor Otter spoke about the need for personal responsibility and ushered in a period of renewed sacrifice, he also spoke of rewarding big business.  The reverence with which Governor Otter spoke about industry seemed to, at times award industry personal attribute any investments made as altruistic measures of  “paying it forward.”   Lest we forget, it was the public sector that put a man on the moon.  It was the public sector that created our interstate highway system. And yes, the public sector invented the Internet, long before Google and Facebook could make a penny off it. It is the public sector that provides safety and security, ensures that the water we drink and the food we eat are safe. The public sector creates infrastructure, provides jobs, and ensures the health and security of our nation. And it is the private sector; small businesses, local providers, and individuals with the ability to bridle their ingenuity, innovation, and creativity, and by their investments have strengthened the fabric of our state and nation. All throughout America’s history, the public and the private sector have worked together to create opportunity.

Idaho’s unemployment rate is the highest it’s been in a decade.  At a minimum wage, a full-time worker earns 54% of what is needed to afford a two-bedroom home at a Fair Market Rate anywhere in the U.S.  Idaho is ranked fifteenth in the nation for senior risk of hunger. Idaho has seen a 21% increase in homelessness since 2009.   Twenty-four percent of homeless people are children under the age of 18.  Thirteen percent of homeless people in Idaho are veterans, and approximately 43% are families.

 Nearly half of all Idaho seniors are at risk for food insecurity. Forty-seven percent of clients receiving emergency food assistance report having to choose between paying for food or paying for utilities or heating fuel, and 34% reported having to choose between paying for food and paying for rent or mortgage.  

 Forty-five percent of children in Idaho benefit from the National School Lunch Program.  20.9% of people on food stamps are children and 110,140 Idaho children were on food stamps in 2009.   The majority of people served by Medicaid are children, and an average of 121,137 Idaho children are enrolled each month.  On average, 73% of Medicaid costs are covered by federal dollars, and regardless of the economic model, all studies show Medicaid spending has had a positive impact on state economies.  

 These are not political issues, but moral imperatives and how we choose to proceed will define our character, our state, and our nation.  How we face these challenges will depend on how much we value the programs and services on which we have come to rely. We believe we must work together to change the system which has become skewed to disadvantage the majority while awarding privilege to the very few.   That we must protect public schools, ensure access to higher education, preserve and protect vital social services, like Social Security, Medicaid, and Medicare. We believe we must invest in small businesses and new infrastructure to create new and good paying jobs. And in our efforts to build strong, vibrant communities, we must act to prevent unprecedented foreclosures and homelessness, create sustainable food programs to eliminate hunger and poverty.  In fact, we believe it is our responsibility to do so.

We understand that a tremendous number of challenges await, and the answers are not always easy. But, we also understand how much is at stake for Idahoans all throughout our state. Though our Governor told us today that there would be no moral victories and that the goal was to make the least bad decisions for our state, we believe we can and must do better!”

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No wonder why Dems lose

Cecil Andrus, one of my all-time favorite people in Idaho politics, had a way of attracting people to his side – which explains why he was one of the most successful people in the history of Idaho politics.

During his time as governor, Andrus often would say that Democrats and Republicans generally what the same things – good schools, maintained highways, quality services and a clean environment. Those general thoughts often, if not always, found their way into his State-of-the-State messages.

Democrats today seem to have a different view, mainly that only Democrats want those things. Only two months ago, Gov. Otter won re-election to office by an overwhelming margin (59 percent to 32 percent for Democrat Keith Allred. Republicans also gained seats to their already overwhelming majority in the Idaho Legislature. But you would never know that by reading the Democratic response to the Governor’s State-of-the-State message on Monday.

“Idahoans are frustrated by our economic conditions. They want a government that is actively working to improve our economy and our quality of life in this state,” the Democrats say.

Yes, and Idahoans largely believe that Gov. Otter and Republicans have better answers than Democrats.

“…while the decisions won’t come easily, the priorities should. These priorities, we believe, should be jobs, providing a high-quality education to our children, protecting Idaho’s most vulnerable citizens and ensuring that our state government is responsible, ethical and accountable.”

Who can disagree? Even the meanest, cruelest Republicans agree that providing a safety net for vulnerable citizens is a proper role for government.

“We believe that maintaining our public structures is essential to protecting the Idaho way of life for our families and businesses. It is not ‘tyranny’ to feed hungry children, care for the disabled or educate workers.”

Can’t argue with that. The difference is that Republicans feel there are some limitations on what the government can do, and how much taxpayers can afford.

“Maintaining and improving the quality and improving the quality of Idaho’s public structures such as schools, courts, health clinics and so on, is vitally important to economic recovery and setting the state on a path toward prosperity.”

So do we double our spending? Triple our spending? Don’t just make an empty statement, Democrats, put a dollar amount to it.

“Some have said that all we need to do to assure prosperity is to get government out of the way. But we believe that government can help to enable business success.”

Hummm. In my 60 years of life, I have never heard a person and business say, “We need more government.”

“Education and the opportunity for a brighter future is something we owe to each Idaho child … With the severe cuts to public schools all over the state, we are in real danger of losing the essence of our public education.”

Things are tough all over. A lot of Idahoans feel they are in “real danger” of losing their jobs, their homes and their families. Don’t worry, folks, public schools will survive.

“We will do all we can to support progress for the State of Idaho and help to shape a brighter future for our citizens.”

Hear! Hear! But the Democrats will have to get out of the campaign mode before they can become active players in the legislative process.

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The new Reagan

Gov. Otter has spent much of his political career talking about Ronald Reagan and all the positive things he brought to this country during challenging times.

In his State-of-the-State message on Monday, I saw a bit of the Old Gipper in Otter. Standing strongly and speaking with confidence, Otter was essentially telling us that things would be OK. There was no gloom and doom, nor talk about “coming to the cliff.” He acknowledged that unemployment was unacceptably high, but said if we worked together we could get through these challenging economic times.

Skeptics might be saying at this point, “Spoken like a true politician.” But I’ve known Butch Otter for about 25 years and he’s not your usual politician. If you’re around him for long, his optimism becomes contagious. If you are angry with him for whatever reason, the anger goes away quickly after you shake his hand, engage in conversation or share a joke.

I didn’t know President Reagan, but I’m guessing he was a lot like Otter is today. I’ve heard people say that if you shook his hand and engaged in conversation, you’d walk away thinking that everything would be OK.

President Reagan was the medicine this country needed after the malaise of the Carter years. I’m getting the feeling that Otter is what this state needs during these difficult economic times. At 68, Otter is a few years younger than Reagan when he was President and he doesn’t have the Reagan’s quick wit (the only President who ever did was Kennedy). But Otter is bringing civility and statesmanship back to politics – which is particularly timely in light of the recent shootings in Arizona.

As with President Reagan, Otter has his share of media critics. My friends at the Statesman were not nearly as impressed with Otter as I was.

“…It was a generic speech, short on details and limited in vision,” the Statesman wrote. “If Idahoans were hoping to hear a clear checklist for the next four years, they didn’t.”

From my end, I didn’t care about the details because the Legislature will be spending the next three months sorting those out. I cared more about the tone, and Otter was on target.

As for details, he’s calling a 3 percent growth, no cuts to public schools and no tax increases. Sounds good to me. He and Supt. Tom Luna are putting together an education plan that calls for teacher pay to be based on performance. What a novel idea. They should have done that years ago.

The Legislature will be spending the next three months slicing, dicing and otherwise second-guessing the Governor’s proposals. But I hope it ends up close to Otter’s proposal, or that the Governor at least gets the benefit of the doubt.

We desperately need leadership during these trying times and the Legislature should give Otter that opportunity to lead and be accountable for mistakes. If calculations are off, the Legislature can make the necessary fixes next year.

There’s no need for this session to go beyond March 15.

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What cliff?

I love those metaphors, illustrating the pending gloom and doom in this year’s legislative session. The Idaho Statesman’s Dan Popkey collected some priceless quotes for his article in Sunday’s paper.

“We have come to the cliff,” says Rep. Maxine Bell, R-Jerome, who co-chairs the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee.

“The cliff is here,” says Sen. Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, the other JFAC co-chair.

“Everyone is going to have to come to the cliff, look over and see just how far they want to go in cutting before determining whether they want to raise any revenue,” said Rep. Fred Wood, R-Twin Falls.

Gov. Butch Otter’s State-of-the-State speech today offered a different message, thank goodness. He says that the days of digging into taxpayers’ pockets, or expecting government to be the answer to all problems, are gone.

“The solutions we seek are in our towns, our neighborhoods and around our kitchen tables,” he said.

Thank you, Governor.

A $340 million gap in the state budget might seem like a crisis to legislators, but let’s give some perspective. We are nowhere near “the cliff” when thousands of fans spend thousands of dollars to travel to Las Vegas to watch the Broncos play a bowl game … when restaurants continue to open up and are jammed packed on a Saturday night … when the prospect of Nordstrom Rack coming to Boise becomes front-page news in the Statesman … when the definition of “middle class” is a $200,000 home and three-car garage.

Look around you. Life is not all that bad.

To me, “coming to the cliff” means this:

n  Someone who has lost a job after working 25 years with a company because a bean counter thought that person was “too old” to perform certain functions.

n  A person who loses a home due to foreclosure and is forced to live in his car, or on the streets.

n  An individual keeping his eye on garbage dumpsters for the best deposits of throw-away food.

n  A mother who wakes up in the middle of the night worrying about paying the rent, or whether there is enough peanut butter and bread to last the rest of the week.

You get the idea. There are problems that are far worse than crunching numbers and balancing budgets. Idaho has 71,900 people who are unemployed (yours truly included) and tens upon thousands more who are under-employed. The government can’t put all these people to work, or give them the salaries they need to pay their bills.

Government can provide a public education, which is a constitutional requirement in Idaho, but it can’t tell students or parents how to best take advantage of the academic opportunities. The government can provide a certain level of health services, but it can’t provide a heart transplant to everyone who needs one, or prevent death.

There’s no question that budget cuts will cause pain. Agencies will get less money. People might lose their jobs or have working hours reduced. Some state workers may lose health benefits offered to fulltime employees. Teachers might have to work for less pay. Classroom sizes might have to be bigger. Administration costs might have to be reduced. More students might have to work their way through college.

No one in the Idaho Statehouse can make these problems go away. As Gov. Otter said so well, “Our first thoughts are about what we have rather than what we lack – what we can do rather than where we can turn for help.”

All Idahoans can expect is for the Governor and the Legislature to do the best they can with the resources available. That’s what people facing unemployment and other life challenges have to do every single day.

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Don’t blame the Speaker

Years ago, I worked with a member of Congress who had this basic rule: Never repeat details of a conversation with the President of the United States. He would say in general terms what he and the President talked about, but he not say exactly what the President told him.

The rule served my boss well. It’s too bad Rep. Eric Anderson of Priest Lake didn’t use similar sensible judgment before shooting his mouth off about his unfair treatment during the Idaho Legislature’s reorganization for this session. Anderson’s actions only validated leadership’s decision not to give him a committee chairmanship or vice chairmanship.

As Anderson told it, he was warned that there could be a political price to pay if he were to file another ethics complaint against Rep. Phil Hart, who is on the hot seat for non-payment of taxes. Anderson didn’t listen. He filed a complaint and now he’s crying to the media about leadership retaliation.

I can’t fault the Speaker on this one. Granted, the Speaker of the House is a far cry from President of the United States. But as a House member, you don’t go around dissing the Speaker of the House – especially if you have thoughts about gaining a position of power.

On the ethics issue, which is being handled by a House committee, Anderson has turned the process into a political circus. A friend of Hart’s filed an ethics complaint against Anderson, which could lead to who knows how many ethics complaints down the line. That’s the last thing Lawerence Denney wants to see during this session. The issues facing the Legislature are daunting enough without having this kind of sideshow.

So let’s not cry for Eric Anderson. He was not marginalized by the Speaker; he was marginalized by himself.

Kevin Richert, opinion page editor of the Idaho Statesman, also addressed this subject.

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Partisanship the Idaho way

Gov. Otter is officially back for another term, and now we can get ready for a lot of pomp and ceremony – the public inauguration on Friday, the procession of elected officials through the Statehouse and the Inaugural Ball on Saturday.

It’s always nice to see smiling faces and warm feelings before the Legislature gets down to serious business.  Governor Otter will lay out his plan on Monday to kick off the 2011 session, and it won’t be pretty. It will be less pretty after the Legislature completes its business sometime in March … or April … or (gulp) May.

Otter’s challenges will be even more complicated given the makeup of the Legislature. Look for a power struggle between the new Senate leadership team and House leaders, who have been in place since 2007. To put it bluntly, they don’t like each other. Sen. Brent Hill, the new pro tem, and Sen. John McGee, the new majority caucus chairman, might as well be Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi as far as a lot of House members are concerned.  Senate Majority Leader Bart Davis, the only retaining member of leadership, does not have a large fan club in the House (to put it mildly). Sen. Chuck Winder, the new assistant majority leader, has a measure of respect and could end up being a peacemaker.

The difference between Senate and House leadership is how they view the budget and taxation. In general terms, senators are not jumping for joy over the prospect of heavy budget cuts; some House members relish the idea of deeper budget cuts as a way of creating smaller government. Senators are more likely to be receptive to “revenue enhancements,” such as repealing some exemptions, increasing sin taxes (beer and wine) and enforcing the internet tax. The House leadership is more likely to hold the line, or even cut taxes, in the name of stimulating the economy.

If Otter can help these divided political factions find a middle ground, it will be perhaps his greatest accomplishment as governor. His State-of-the-State message on Monday will give the first clue as to whether Otter will be a leader, or a nonplayer, during this session.

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Welcome to my world

Through my 60 years of this wonderful life, I visualized doing a lot of things.

During my childhood, my dream was to become a major league baseball player. However, inability to hit sliders persuaded me to look elsewhere. At one time, I thought I’d like to become a sports play-by-play announcer – to be the next Vin Scully. But then I gave newspapers a try at the University of Idaho and I was hooked. And I reman hooked today, which explains why I am blogging.

A lot of good people use blogs to enhance their careers, such as Betsy Russell with the Spokesman Review and Kevin Richert with the Idaho Statesman. For me, blogging is more of a homeless shelter for a guy who is not ready to retire – and still has something to offer. The pay stinks, but you can’t beat the working conditions.

The name of this blog, “From the Inside,” comes from two main perspectives. In the newspaper industry, I’ve worked in a variety of jobs, including political editor with the Post-Register in Idaho Falls and editorial editor/writer with the Idaho Statesman. I know a thing or two about the inside operations of a newspaper. Over the last four years, I have worked as communication adviser with the Idaho Republican caucus, which has been a valuable educational experience. I don’t always agree with the Republican perspectives, but I have a better understanding of their thinking process.

Naturally, I will write a lot about politics, but I won’t be confined to that area. On occasions, I will drop in sports or lifestyle commentary, especially as it relates to people of my age group.

Most of all, I plan to have fun with this. So as my brother (and life hero) used to say … “Let the good times roll.”

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