Luna won’t seek re-election

Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Luna will not seek a third term in 2014 — in part, he says, because he didn’t want a re-election campaign to distract attention from education reform efforts.

Luna’s announcement, made Monday morning at the Statehouse, comes as a surprise. For the past year, Luna had told reporters that he was planning to seek re-election. And the news could throw the race for state superintendent wide open.

Luna, 55, said he will spend his final 11 months in office pushing for the 20 recommendations from Gov. Butch Otter’s education reform task force. Luna was one member of the diverse 31-member group, which coalesced behind $350 million to $400 million in reforms. Luna said he believes there is “fragile” bipartisan support for the recommendations, completed in August, and he was concerned that the plans could fall prey to election-year politics.

“It seems like lately, everything I do, every action, every speech, every request, is looked at through the lens of re-election,” Luna said Monday. “I want to take that off the table.”

Luna’s news conference focused partly on his past — his seven years in the superintendent’s job — and what the future holds for himself and for the election.

Luna defended his 2011 Students Come First education overhaul — the three controversial laws overturned by voters in November 2012. Luna said the Students Come First debate was necessary, because it shook Idaho education out of its “malaise” and set the stage for the current reform debate. “(Students Come First) was that disruptive force that came from the outside.”

Luna deflected a question that suggested he might have been vulnerable in a re-election campaign. “I think every time I’ve run for this office I’ve been vulnerable,” said Luna, who added that his abortive campaign had conducted no polling on his re-election prospects.

Luna also declined to endorse a possible successor. Melinda Smyser, a former state senator who now works on Sen. Jim Risch’s regional staff, has been rumored as a potential candidate — and Smyser was seen outside the Senate committee room where Luna made his announcement. Luna said he has had “conversations” with Smyser about a possible run — but not since Friday night, when Luna says he decided not to run again.

“I think it’s very premature to talk about any endorsing of any candiudate,” Luna said.

In the past 10 days, two Republicans have announced a run — Cottonwood music and drama teacher John Eynon and longtime American Falls principal Randy Jensen — but neither have the political experience or statewide name recognition of Luna. Democrat Jana Jones has announced her run for superintendent; eight years ago, she captured 49 percent of the statewide vote in a loss to Luna.

Regardless, Luna’s decision represents a changing of the guard in the GOP, as it heads into a May 20 primary. For the first time since 1998, Republicans will have a candidate other than Luna running for the state superintendent’s post.

Luna first ran for the post in 2002 — losing to incumbent Marilyn Howard in the November general election, in the last statewide campaign won by an Idaho Democrat.

Luna captured the post in 2006, narrowly defeating Jones, a top aide to Howard. Luna was re-elected in 2010, defeating former Boise schools Superintendent Stan Olson.

In the wake of the Students Come First repeals, Luna still had repeatedly said that he was planning to seek a third term in office — including, most recently in a Dec. 20 interview with Idaho Education News.

“When you’re a sitting office-holder, you don’t have go through the process of creating a committee and filing paperwork (that a challenger would have to go through),” Luna told Idaho Education News’ Clark Corbin at the time. “I’ve made it clear I plan to run for reelection. I’m raising money and suspect that some time at the end of January we will do a formal press conference here where you make the announcement official.”

And in testimony at the Statehouse this session, Luna has sounded like an officeholder with long-term objectives. He has talked repeatedly about the need to set up a teacher salary ladder — a key recommendation from Gov. Butch Otter’s education reform task force — and the complicated teacher licensing structure to support it. Luna has also renewed his call for collecting taxes on Internet purchases, as one vehicle to pay for the task force recommendations.

But on Monday, Luna said he was keeping his post-election options open. He said he had no job lined up, and said he might explore missionary work or returning to his family’s business. “I’m not necessarily in need of employment.”

Read more, see more: Here’s a link to Luna’s prepared remarks, and a link to Luna’s campaign news release. And here’s a link to video from Luna’s announcement. Here are reactions from the Statehouse and from the Twitterverse.

  • Rick Fletcher

    You don’t have any thoughts or inside information on what caused Luna’s change of heart? I know you don’t participate in any comments for this “blog” but isn’t that what separates a blog from a news organization? Two way interaction? You must be closer to the people and places you cover than me and your other readers. Have you no thoughts on why Luna changed his mind?

  • Scott Nicholson

    I’m not all that surprised. From afar, it appears he and Otter have split the sheets politically, although it’s always hard to determine what is political theater & what is not.

    But, he hasn’t shown much passion as his benchmark legislation was firmly, firmly rejected. by the voters.

    That was a rough ride for him & the citizenry.

    On top of that, the Idaho Republican Party leadership seems divided on whether to try to kill public education quickly or just let it bleed to death. I don’t know how any responsible person in the role he’s been in would want to continue under that approach.

    This is a good call on his part, I think.

  • Rick Fletcher

    Scott, you make great points. I’ve always believed Tom Luna wasn’t trying to ruin education in Idaho. He was inexperienced and was sold a bill of goods from privatization pushers. But as the numbers in Idaho continue to drop – and they do, horribly – any good person who looked at the results every day has to see the futility in current policy at least as far as educational attainment is concerned. On top of that having voters directly say no to his big policy changes must make his head spin. This year, he made a weak last stand to try and change course. It doesn’t appear to have any effect in the Capital building or city. The Legislature appears set to push the Governor’s budget through and not fund education in a way the alternate budget shows is very doable.

    When a GOP incumbent voluntarily steps down from a highly visible position in Idaho, it shows how deep the problems are in education. We need big, massive change in our system. We need to get out of our bottom spot and we need to do it quickly or we will be so far behind the rest of the country the state will be damaged for years.

  • Glenn Michael

    Our free fall in education rankings and student achievement can be traced back a long ways, but I venture to say it accelerated when short term Governor Jim Risch enacted his 2006 Property Tax Relief and eliminated property tax funding for education in Idaho and left the funding to the whim of our Legislature. I hope history will lay this at Risch’s feet for years to come. Tom Luna’s tenure is the bookend on this grand experiment. Anyone coming in should/will look better as we are at the bottom and although we can fall further, any improvement will be celebrated. Best of luck to all of the candidates in 2014 and let’s hope we elect a superintendent who is capable, energetic, visionary and transparent.

  • Adam Collins

    Good-bye and good riddance. Tom Luna’s legacy will be one of incompetence laced with greed, to the great detriment of the public education system of Idaho. How many students have been victimized by his failures? How many teachers have left either this state or the profession of teaching by his incompetence? He has become politically toxic, wholly disliked, and thoroughly ineffective. So much for this shill of the Republican Party and the for-profit educational groups that have benefitted financially from his misdeds. At least this will mark a welcome end to the worst Superintendent of Public Education Idaho has ever seen.

  • M. Anne Liebenthal

    Looking forward to your articles on the hands-on, in-the-trenches classroom and building administrator experience of Luna’s prospective replacements, and their successes as educators.