Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Luna hosted a reporter roundtable on Monday, November 12, 2012 to discuss the November 6 election and education going forward. Here are excerpts from his conversation with reporters:
Q: It’s been six days now. What is your assessment of the next step? What reforms might you look at with the Legislature?
Supt Luna: I think it’s important that education reform doesn’t stop. We just had a 22-month discussion about education in Idaho at a level of detail that we’ve never had before, and I think that that, if anything, has been very productive. People around the water cooler and the dinner table have had conversations about education reform, so I think the last thing that anyone wants to see is an end to education reform in Idaho. I think it’s critical that we work together and identify parts of the reform legislation that have support from all legislative stakeholders—ones that are easy to move forward in this next legislative session. What those are I don’t know just yet. I think you heard during the campaign that there were parts of these laws that were agreeable to both sides, but there were also parts that were disagreeable obviously to the “Vote No” campaign and to the electorate. Again, I think that we have to take advantage of the conversation we have had over the last two years in Idaho. We need to continue that conversation, and we need to make sure that conversation leads to meaningful reform in our schools.
Q: The “Vote No” campaign has said that it is willing to reach out and open a dialogue with you and other members of your administration. Has that happened?
Supt Luna: Yes, I’ve had a number of meetings with stakeholders. … There have been other conversations already with stakeholders in person and over the phone with the IEA (Idaho Education Association). We will sit down and meet with them. We did before, and we will continue to do that going forward. It’s important that we do that in a collaborative way, and we will.
Q: When you say that opponents focused on one or two things, are you suggesting that because of the campaign that was run, voters didn’t necessarily understand…?
Supt Luna: No, the same people who voted down these laws elected me to this position twice. So, I can’t criticize them for turning down these laws and then congratulate them for making the right choice when they elected me. I have full confidence in Idahoans educating themselves and then making a decision based on the information that they’ve gathered. … What I am saying is that if we knew this was going to a referendum, then maybe rather than three bills there should have been a couple dozen bills, and we should have treated each of these things separately so they could have been weighed on their own merits. And maybe that’s the process going forward. I don’t know because those conversations are still happening.
Q: I think we all know that the Students Come First laws, however affectionately or otherwise, were labeled the “Luna Laws.” With all due respect, you don’t introduce legislation into the legislature. You don’t vote on anything in the legislature. You don’t sign anything into law. I think more realistically they were as much the “Otter Laws” as they were anything. With that said, looking forward, have you communicated with the Governor? Where is Governor Otter in terms of looking forward in education?
Supt Luna: I’ve had a number of conversations with the Governor, and we both agree that we need to take advantage of this opportunity that has presented itself—this conversation that has been had about education reform. I never ran into one person who said they were voting “no” because they didn’t think we should reform our schools. They had specific issues with certain parts of the law. I ran into a lot of people who were splitting their votes. I ran into a lot of people who said, “I like this about Proposition 1, but I struggle with this part.” So, I didn’t hear from anyone who said, “Let’s go back to the system we had before.” We’ll get everybody around the table, have conversations to identify the things that we all agree on that were in the different propositions, move forward together with legislation that would restore those parts of the bill, and then work together to find common ground on areas where we do not agree.
Q: Do you anticipate the Governor being involved in that process?
Supt Luna: Yes, I do. I think the Governor will continue to play a lead role. If you look at other states that have gone through this process, it’s similar to what we are going through in Idaho. There are steps forward. There are bumps in the road. There are times when you have to have a process check and a reality check. But every one of those states has had a governor, whether it’s Tim Pawlenty or Jeb Bush, who continued to provide the leadership and really the expectation that we have to do these things and then used that pulpit to encourage the citizens and the legislature to respond.
Q: Do you think there is something to be learned from the outcome of the election in Washington and I think it was Georgia, where you had a very red, Republican-leaning state that went overwhelmingly for Mitt Romney in Georgia and a very blue-leaning state that went overwhelmingly for Barack Obama in Washington both vote to approve the expansion of charter schools. There seems to be a general appreciation and approval for charter school expansion, but reforming conventional schools has been uncomfortable for people. Is there any lesson in that, as far as you’re concerned?
Supt Luna: I think you’ll see that education reform across the country is not just limited to red states. It’s happening in red states and blue states. It’s happening in inner cities and rural areas. The opposition to reform is the same, but those who support reform are Democrats, Republicans, etc. I believe education reform is a bipartisan effort, and it will continue to be.
Q: Some folks have suggested that emotions were perhaps so raw on both sides that finding some agreement during the 2013 session might be a little bit premature, so this should go to some kind of interim committee of the legislature over the summer.
Supt Luna: Well, I can name you any number of blue-ribbon committees and interim committees that have been tasked to deal with very, very important issues that require real leadership to deal with, and lacking leadership, then you appoint a blue-ribbon committee or an interim committee to kick the can down the road. I agree with you that this has been a very emotional time, but I would remind everybody that it has been very emotional for the adults. Our kids and our students have to have an education system that is moving forward to meet their needs. Our state has a goal that by the year 2020, 60% of our population will have some kind of postsecondary degree or certificate. Today that number is 34%. So, if we’re thinking about 2020, those students are 8th graders today. We are not going to hit that goal if we continue with a system that achieves only 34%.
So we can’t wait. Our kids can’t wait for adults to figure this out. So we are going to have to set aside our emotions and our egos and, as adults, work together to do what is best for our children. Waiting is not what’s best for our children. We are not going to go to the legislature and propose legislation that is so controversial that it’s going to drive the same kind of emotion that we have seen the last couple of years, but there are things that we have all agreed are good parts of the Students Come First legislation, and there is no reason that we wouldn’t move forward to bring those back.
Q: There are some people who perceive education reform as nothing more than an effort to try and limit the power of the teachers’ union or somehow organized labor. How would you respond to that?
Supt Luna: Again, this is hindsight. You’re asking me to play Monday-morning quarterback. All I can do is give you the history, and then you can decide what to do with it. When we were putting together education reform, what we referred to as Students Come First, there were some who thought that what you found in Proposition 1 was enough. I never believed that just dealing with tenure, dealing with collective bargaining, dealing with open negotiations, eliminating seniority. Those are an important part of education reform, but just Proposition 1 in and of itself is not going to get the job done. It’s not the silver bullet. You have reform the way you compensate teachers. You also have to reform the way that we deliver education, create opportunities through the proper use of technology, give all students equal opportunity for college credit, etc.
Q: You said that you will not be bringing forth legislation this session that will drive the kind of emotions that we saw over the Students Come First package. Is there anything in this package that you’re going to stay away from?
Supt Luna: We’ll hear from the stakeholders. We’ll come together and identify what we all agree on, and then we’ll move forward. So it would be premature for me to assume that I know what is agreeable to all of the different stakeholders.
Q: Were you surprised when, just before the election, as the word went out to school districts as to who would and wouldn’t get bonuses under the plan, the concern was expressed in many areas of the state that the schools whose teachers didn’t get bonuses were perhaps the ones who were dealing with more disadvantaged kids. Was there a flaw in this plan?
Supt Luna: Well, it wasn’t a perfect plan. The only way it’s going to be perfected is if we can implement it, learn from it, adjust it, and keep going forward. If we never start, we’re never going to be able to identify the areas that need to change and be improved.
Q: Do you anticipate having a package by the start of the legislative session, or will it emerge sometime within the session?
Supt Luna: I don’t know. What I do know is that we’re going to lead. I think people are elected to lead, and sometimes that means that you get into areas that maybe aren’t all that popular, but it’s very easy to lead when things are going well. Everybody wants to lead a parade when everybody likes the music. The fact is, if you’re going to bring about education reform that is good for students, somebody has to lead. That’s what I’m attempting to do. That’s what this legislation was about. We’re going to continue. This is a bump in the road, but we’re going to continue to work toward bringing about the reform that our schools have to have.
Q: You said that voters understood what they were voting on, but you keep saying things like, “The voters didn’t understand.”
Supt Luna: No. So there’s two separate things. Students Come First has many, many components in it, and it’s not reasonable for me to expect that voters would know every piece that was in the law. But when they do become aware of the fact that students can earn college credit, I think that’s something that they all support that would be easy to go forward to the legislature with. But, I’m not claiming that the electorate was deceived or uneducated or that they didn’t know what they are doing because, like I said, the same people elected me and re-elected me. So if they were wise in the use of their vote when they elected me, I’m assuming they used that same wisdom when they passed judgment on these laws.
Q: You had teachers during the whole election process saying, “We weren’t involved.” What do you say to that? Were they not involved? How do we correct that going forward?
Supt Luna: Well, I’ll address going forward. We’ve had the ‘tis and ‘taint over whether there was involvement or enough involvement, but, going forward, I think you’ll find that all our meetings with all stakeholders will be very transparent and open meetings so the press can see who was actually there and not there, what comments were made, who was involved and who wasn’t, so that then we no longer have this disagreement as to whether there was involvement or enough involvement.
Q: You’ve talked about those public meetings. Do you think that by having all sides in a public meeting, ground floor up, going forward that both sides will be more willing to compromise on things that they maybe hold sacred or that they weren’t willing to give up before?
Supt Luna: Yes, and we are going to stream these live on the web so parents and everyone can participate. We have learned through the past two years as all the negotiations at the local level have happened in open, public meetings that what you have described is true. The conversations are more open and more civil and more productive, and what happens in the meeting is very transparent and neither side can claim something that isn’t accurate. People will be able to judge for themselves as to whether one group or another group had equal access and equal opportunity to participate. So we’ll make it a very transparent process.
Q: Do you think that this outcome has affected your effectiveness as a leader, or will the test of that be seen in the future?
Supt Luna: I think we’ll know more going forward, but I will tell you that I am committed, as the State Superintendent of Public Instruction, to make sure that all 280,000 students have equal access and opportunity to succeed in the 21st Century. If there has to be a loser, if this has to be a win-lose, then let it be me. Not the students, not public education, not the teachers. If the press and the public have to blame somebody and identify a loser in this process, then it’s me. But public education, our students, our teachers, our parents, our taxpayers cannot take the brunt of what happened last Tuesday. If people have to find somebody to blame, let them blame me.
Q: You have been very committed to these over the last two years and, as you have indicated, the last 15 years. After last Tuesday’s results, did it ever cross your mind to step down?
Supt Luna: No, I’m not a quitter. I mean, if I was a quitter, there have been many times in my life when I would have folded up the tent and gone home. I have had many setbacks, but never defeats. So, I am not a quitter. I willingly went into this process. I left the private sector to get into education. I have never run for any other public office that wasn’t involved in education, and I’m still committed to making this work. In the end, this is about the future of the children. Not my future, not your future, not really about the adults' future in Idaho. It’s about the future of the children, and that’s what I’ll continue to focus on. And I’m confident that adults can figure this out, and we’ll do what’s best for our children. I think Winston Churchill said that Americans always do the right thing after they’ve tried everything else. I am convinced we will do the right thing. If that means I have to do things differently, then so be it. But we will do the right things.
The full audio from the reporter roundtable is available online.