The new faces on the K-12 interim committee

Three decades before running as a Republican for a state Senate seat in Idaho, Fred Martin worked as a history teacher. He left Pocatello’s Highland High School after about five years. The reason: Idaho’s low teacher wages.

Before winning a hard-fought House primary in Boise’s Democratic North End, Holli Woodings volunteered to help the Boise School District pass its March 2012 levy. Education is critical to her family’s software company, and her family. Woodings’ daughter Mary turns 3 in October; her second child is due in August.

When a legislative interim committee begins debating K-12 policy later this summer, Martin and Woodings will bring these respective backgrounds to the discussion. The Boise lawmakers also bring an outsider’s perspective. Both are first-year lawmakers who weren’t in the Statehouse for the debate over the 2011 Students Come First laws. Neither serve on the education committees that spent the 2013 session sorting out the aftereffects of the Students Come First voter repeal the previous November.

Martin and Woodings both hope the interim committee will help smooth over some of the lingering tensions between Idaho’s education and teaching communities.

Whether that happens, of course, has much to do with where Senate Education Committee Chairman John Goedde and House Education Committee Chairman Reed DeMordaunt choose to take the agenda. The committee’s focus, as spelled out in legislative language, is so broad as to be enigmatic: “to undertake and complete a study of how to improve and strengthen Idaho’s K-12 educational system and all matters relating thereto.”

It’s a near certainty that the interim committee will take up labor issues. Gov. Butch Otter’s education reform task force took labor issues off the table during its first meeting in January, and the 2013 Legislature passed several laws echoing pieces of Proposition 1, the rejected Students Come First collective bargaining law. But these newly passed laws will remain in effect for only one year, in order to allow the interim committee to review them.

Woodings, one of two Democrats on the 10-member interim committee, opposed the labor bills this session. She questioned the timing of passing laws to allow districts to cut teacher pay and eliminate “evergreen clauses” in contracts, only weeks after an Office of Performance Evaluations report found “a strong undercurrent of despair” within Idaho’s teaching community. “I just don’t think that the legislation that we passed helped that situation at all.”

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Martin opposed most of the labor bills, at least this session. Last fall — before defeating former U.S. attorney Betty Richardson in the year’s most expensive legislative election — Martin reluctantly came out in support of the Students Come First laws. But after voters resoundingly rejected the laws, Martin believed it was too early to bring back major pieces of the legislation. He isn’t ruling out supporting the labor bills in 2014, “but it’ll still be in the back of my mind, how the people voted.”

In other noteworthy votes from 2013:

  • Martin sided with Goedde and several other Senate committee chairs in a battle with Sen. Dean Cameron, the co-chairman of the powerful Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee. Martin voted against the original public schools budget, which failed in the Senate on a 17-18 vote, saying the language on K-12 spending usurped the Education Committee. Martin supported the compromise: a slightly rewritten $1.308 billion public schools budget that passed the Legislature on the final day of the session.
  • Woodings was one of only two House members to oppose a resolution to encourage public schools to teach cursive handwriting. Woodings says she sees the value of teaching cursive, but saw little value in a non-binding resolution that would require the State Board of Education to write rules on cursive instruction. “Most teachers already include it in their curriculum.”

Martin and Woodings both asked for spots on the K-12 committee. And their legislative leaders were impressed with the newcomers’ independence and thoughtfulness.

Senate President Pro Tem Brent Hill says there should be a place on the K-12 committee for someone who can take an objective look at education issues, now that Idahoans and stakeholder groups have said what they don’t want. “He’s expressed an interest in finding out what they do want.”

House Minority Leader John Rusche says Woodings is smart and able to work with colleagues, and will bring a fresh perspective. “It seems to me that if you always have the same people, you always get the same answers.”

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