The major Idaho education reform bill was passed only last year, but it is already facing a big hurdle on the way to implementation in the form of a state-wide referendum in November. Opponents of the sections of the bill that placed limits on collective bargaining by teachers, introduced merit pay and made online courses a requirement for high school graduation have gathered enough signatures to place these measures before the Idaho voters.
Now a question is being asked all around the state's education establishment: what happens if parts of the law are repealed, three months into the school year?
"If lawmakers had listened to the public last year we wouldn't be having this conversation. They very clearly said not to pass these bills," said Idaho Education Association President Penni Cyr, who pointed to widespread public testimony against the plan in 2011.
Tom Luna, who is the head of Idaho's public school system and chief author of the education bill, says that a repeal would create upheaval in the schools that will result in loss of funding and teacher bonuses. As an example, he cited a program to purchase laptops for all high school teachers that was scheduled for roll-out this fall. If the ballot measure is successful,
[t]eachers could reclaim their tenure, but they might have to let go of those new laptops.
"As far as the technology goes, we would probably have to take the laptops back, because we would no longer have the appropriation to complete the contract," said department spokeswoman Melissa McGrath.
The referendum also threw into chaos the Legislature's plans to tweak the law in the upcoming legislative session.
When presenting a serious of tweaks to the disputed education laws, Sen. John Goedde noted each bill from the state Department of Education has a provision saying if the reforms are "rejected through voter referendum in November 2012, the provisions of this act shall be null, void and of no further force or effect."
The language ensures that if the laws are thrown out, the amendment bills go down as well, said Luna's deputy chief of staff Jason Hancock.
Hancock insisted on the language in order to avoid the appearance that the lawmakers were trying to do an end-run around the wishes of the Idaho voters.
"We didn't even want there to be a perception that we were trying to engage in subterfuge with the referendum," Hancock said. "Enough people signed those petitions to get it on the ballot and the people of Idaho are going to have their chance to speak. We're comfortable with that, it's as it should be."
The state legislators are following the guidelines issued by the attorney general's office last year, when the signature-collecting efforts concluded successfully. The guidelines reviewed the practices of other states in similar situations, and urged the lawmakers to act "in good faith" when writing amendments to the education bill.