Tom Luna charts his exit strategy

Two days after announcing his plans to step aside at the end of his term — a move that surprised many Idaho political junkies — Tom Luna found himself right back in the fray.

A briefing on new statewide assessments quickly turned contentious. Luna’s fellow Republicans on the Senate Education Committee peppered the state superintendent and his aides with pointed questions about the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, and tests aligned to the new Idaho Core Standards.

The most impassioned critic was Meridian Republican Russ Fulcher, a gubernatorial candidate. Luna also was grilled by Steven Thayn, an Emmett Republican who hasn’t completely ruled out his own run for superintendent.

Luna and Willits, 1.23.14
State Superintendent Tom Luna consults with Chief of Staff Luci Willits during a break in a Jan. 23 Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee meeting. Four days later, Luna surprised many political observers by saying he would not seek a third term in office.

On Jan. 27, Luna ruled out seeking a third term — saying he hoped to defuse some of the politics of education policy. But will things work out that way, in an election year for almost every other public official in the Statehouse?

The dynamics might have changed over the past 10 days, said House Education Committee Chairman Reed DeMordaunt, a Luna ally. But the focus hasn’t. “Honestly, in my mind, nothing’s changed.”

A lengthy agenda

Luna isn’t lacking for a to-do list in his final 11 months in office.

He’d like to keep the state on course on Common Core, and the SBAC test that will be field-tested in Idaho schools in April and May. He’s pushing for teacher leadership bonuses, as a precursor to a salary ladder that boosts pay across the board. He wants to continue the push for dual-credit courses in high schools. And to pay for an education task force’s $350 million to $400 million list of reforms, he wants to see Idaho come up with a mechanism to collect sales taxes on Internet purchases.

Luna doesn’t expect everything to get done in one year. The Internet tax issue is an uphill battle; conservative tax hawks in the House have painted a multistate sales tax compact as an affront to state sovereignty. Even if the Legislature sets up an interim committee to study the issue, that would be a step forward, said Luna.

The task force’s recommendations are in a different spot on the political continuum: vetted and overwhelmingly endorsed by 31 elected officials, business leaders and education stakeholders. Luna, a member of the task force, sees the broad-based support as an opportunity that Idaho can ill afford to squander.

Like Luna, Idaho Education Association Executive Director Robin Nettinga is optimistic about the prospects. Luna and the IEA have been at loggerheads during the bulk of Luna’s 85 months in office, but Luna and IEA President Penni Cyr were in agreement on all 20 task force recommendations. And so far, the consensus seems to be holding.

“We’re feeling positive about a path forward,” Nettinga said.

The trouble with SBAC

Senate Education’s Jan. 29 hearing wasn’t the last word on SBAC. After the hearing, Thayn submitted three pages of questions and comments to Luna and his staff. The Education Department sent Thayn an eight-page response late Wednesday afternoon.

And while the back and forth between Thayn and Luna’s shop is lengthy, it isn’t necessarily unique. In marked contrast to the task force recommendations, and the halo effect surrounding them, SBAC is a flashpoint. And it probably should come as no surprise that Luna’s announcement has done little to temper the controversy surrounding the SBAC — a computer exam that will take 6 to 7 ½ hours to complete.

“It’s the big unknown … and the unknown is always unnerving,” said DeMordaunt, R-Eagle, who plans his own hearing on the assessment.

Nettinga agreed.

“I think the questions will continue until the field test has been run.”

Visibility and viability?

Luna prides himself on being a superintendent who interacts regularly with legislators. And he certainly hasn’t been in seclusion since his Jan. 27 announcement.

On Tuesday, he appeared in front of the House Education Committee to field questions about the state’s high school WiFi project. In contrast to last week’s grilling over SBAC — not to mention the sharp backlash that came after Luna awarded the multiyear WiFi contract — the superintendent faced a pedestrian series of questions.

The WiFi project still has to navigate its way through the legislative pipeline; Luna wants an additional $2.25 million to continue the contract. It’s one small piece of his $1.4 billion budget request, which also includes a 1 percent pay raise for teachers and $16 million for teacher leadership bonuses.

Ultimately, a budget proposal is the policy centerpiece for a state superintendent in any legislative session — election year or not. And it will provide a key test of Luna’s viability in his last year in office.

“Generally speaking, lame ducks don’t carry a lot of clout and aren’t always effective,” said Jim Weatherby, a longtime Idaho political analyst and Boise State University professor emeritus. “That’s a general rule; we’ll see.”

Luna voices confidence, but he’s not blind to the political reality. In what is now a wide-open election year, he knows education issues are ripe fodder for politicking. “I’m just not going to be a part of it.”

Read more: Clark Corbin looks at Luna’s seven years in office, and the attempts at reform that defined his tenure.

Kevin Richert

Kevin Richert

Senior reporter and blogger Kevin Richert specializes in education politics and education policy. He has more than 30 years of experience in Idaho journalism. He is a frequent guest on "Idaho Reports" on Idaho Public Television and "Idaho Matters" on Boise State Public Radio. Follow Kevin on Twitter: @KevinRichert. He can be reached at [email protected]

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