Luna proposes 3 percent hike for education budget

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BOISE, Idaho (AP) — Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Luna on Thursday proposed a 3 percent hike to public-school funding for 2014, including a small pay increase for teachers that restores funding he shifted from salaries starting last year to help finance his now-failed education reforms.

Luna presented his budget to the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee, calling for spending $1.31 billion in the year starting in July. It includes a 1.67 percent boost, amounting to nearly $15 million, to restore minimum salaries for teachers, as well as a $500 increase to first-year teachers' minimum salaries, raising them to $31,000.

This is Luna's first spending proposal following voters' rejection of his 2011 "Students Come First" education reforms last November.

Noticeably absent: The $38.7 million in merit-pay bonuses that went to teachers last year, but which has since been discontinued following the failure of his education overhaul. Consequently, many teachers overall compensation will go down.

In an hour-long presentation to Idaho budget writers on the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee, Luna renewed his call for a pay-for-performance plan for teachers, which he believes is a critical element to attracting the best teachers to Idaho's classrooms, and keeping them there.

"I'm still convinced the only way we can continue to see this unprecedented amount of funding going to teacher compensation is if the state develops a differentiated compensation plan for teacher educators," Luna told budget writers. "If a leader is not willing to risk his or her political future on bold ideas, they will never bring forth the solutions that will solve the most important issues of our day."

Luna's budget asks for more money than Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter proposed giving public schools during his State of the State speech on Jan. 7.

Otter proposed only a 2 percent, or $26 million, overall increase; if Luna gets his way, schools would get about $38 million more.

Budget writers, in conjunction with members of the House and Senate Education committees, will make the final decisions during the coming weeks.

Like Otter's budget, Luna's includes $33.9 million for as-yet unspecified changes to Idaho's education system currently being debated by a 33-member, governor-appointed panel in the wake of Students Come First's defeat at the voting booth.

It's unclear if any of that money will actually be appropriated this year, however, with potentially sharp differences between stakeholders, including the Idaho Education Association teachers union, and others over programs that would have broad support — and would avoid engendering the animus that was spawned by Students Come First.

Time isn't on the group's side, conceded Mike Lanza, a Boise resident and father who helped organize opposition to Luna's reforms last year.

"We would have to do it, obviously within a matter of weeks," said Lanza, a task force member. "It seems our momentum is heading toward longer-term recommendations on how to improve Idaho schools that we would make before the end of the year."

Among other things, Luna's proposed budget include $3.7 million to continue developing so-called "Common Core" standards for public schools, part of a now 47-state effort to establish better consistency for what students are expected to learn before advancing to the next grade.

There's also $4.85 million for math and science teachers to boost instruction in those subjects, as well as $150,000 to reconvene a school safety task force in a bid to protect Idaho school children from a tragedy like the one that happened in Newtown, Conn., last month.

HIs plan also calls for dedicating some $10.4 million for technology upgrades for schools.

On Nov. 6, voters rejected Luna's plan to dedicate millions to buy laptop computers for teachers and high school students, but Luna insists that Idaho continues paying for technology that, in particular, helps students at rural schools gain access to specialized courses they've traditionally been locked out of, due to their isolation.

Those include Advanced Placement classes, as well as "virtual field trips" to places like the Idaho Botanical Garden — transmitted via the state's broadband Internet system, the Idaho Education Network.

"While technology has been a hotly debated topic in the last two years, one thing is clear: Teachers do use technology in the classroom," Luna told budget writers.

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