Two themes dominate ‘listening session’

Charter school supporters and opponents of the overturned Students Come First laws roared loudest during Friday’s education listening sessions at the Capitol.

Fifty people testified in front of lawmakers during the 2 1/2-hour hearing, which filled the 200-plus capacity Senate Auditorium and required some to wait in an overflow room.

Listening sessionHouse and Senate leaders called last month for the hearing, which was held in front the House and Senate education committees.

In addition to a crowd of parents, administrators and a few educators, 11 students spoke during the hearing – all of whom said they attended either Sage International or The Village charter schools.

The charter school backers’ messages focused on promoting school choice, increasing spending for charter schools and equalizing the funding formulas between traditional public schools and public charter schools.

Several charter school students said their schools would benefit from additional funding by being able to add a playground, gym or cafeteria.

“I don’t think it’s fair public schools get more money than charter schools,” said Katie Bush, a Sage International student. “I see no reason for us to get less money.”

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So many people backing charter schools testified that others later joked when introducing themselves that they were not connected with a charter school.

At the instruction of Sen. John Goedde, R-Coeur d’Alene, chairman of the Senate Education Committee, lawmakers did not ask questions during testimony.

Three members of the two education committees did not attend the session – Sens. Steven Thayn, R-Emmett, and Russ Fulcher, R-Meridian, and Rep. Rich Wills, R-Glenns Ferry.

Some of those who testified, and their comments, include:

  • Brad Cederblom, traveled from North Idaho to testify, urging the committees to wait on a 31-member education task force convened by Gov. Butch Otter: “I encourage you to slow this down and allow the task force to work and make recommendations, and come back at some point in the future.”
  • Mike Lanza, co-founder of Idaho Parents and Teachers Together, a Students Come First opponent and a task force member: “If the Legislature fails to listen to the public, if it passes laws the voters already told them they do not support, it jeopardizes public faith in this new process that has only just begun.”
  • Meridian School Board member Anne Ritter, president of the Idaho School Board Association, which has introduced labor and bargaining bills that echo elements of the repealed Students Come First laws: “We ask for flexibility that allows us to responsibly budget … It remains our obligation to the taxpayers of our community to be good stewards, not only to their dollars but to the education of our children.”
  • Graham Hill, a ninth-grade student at Sage International: “If charter schools around the state were given equal funding, just imagine how well we would do and how far we could go.”
  • Russ Joki, a longtime educator who is suing the state and its school districts, saying school fees violate the Idaho Constitution’s requirement for free and uniform schools: “I believe the ISBA’s and other proposals for reform have to be put aside. A greater authority in our state had already spoken to those reforms.”
  • Steve Berch, who ran unsuccessfully for the Idaho House in District 15 as a Democrat last year: “By any objective measure Idaho is behind most states when it comes to investing in education… there is a difference between being frugal and being cheap: If you want the best, you have to pay for it.” Berch went on to propose lawmakers scale back all existing tax exemptions to 80 percent as a way to raise $150 million in revenue,
  • Penni Cyr, president of the Idaho Education Association: “I assure you these (collective  bargaining) bills are insulting to our members.”
  • Sue Philley, president of Transform Idaho: “Why is the Legislature wanting to readdress these issues when less than three months ago voters, by a healthy margin, made it very clear they did not approve of the contents of Proposition 1?”

The capacity crowd was respectful of Goedde’s instructions not to exceed the three-minute speaking limit and to refrain from booing or cheering.

But there was one agitator in the crowd. Pete Peterson, who has run unsuccessfully for governor, identified himself as a “comic” and “acting campaign manager” for an effort to recall Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Luna. Peterson wore a black Bob Marley T-shirt, suspenders and jeans and donned a red Santa hat at one point. He spoke out against the ISBA’s collective bargaining bills. Peterson’s testimony drew gasps and few laughs at one point: “I’m a Republican. I’m not a good one. I don’t have a DUI, but I’m trying.”

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