The story broke on Facebook. Representative Brian Cronin, 40, is a Boise Democrat and one of the youngest members of the Idaho state legislature. He likes to use his Facebook page as an open forum for his constituents. He gives them a behind-the-scenes perspective on state politics, and in return, they let off some steam.
On Feb. 2, Cronin updated his status message with a cryptic remark: “I was just lobbied by someone from Apple, pushing me to support the Luna plan.”
The “Luna Plan” he referenced is the polarizing set of education reforms proposed by Idaho’s Republican Superintendent of Public Schools, Tom Luna. By the time Cronin alerted his 1,300 followers to Apple’s lobbying, the reform bills had already become a flashpoint for the entire state. Public hearings in Boise were flooded; several people had driven more than eight hours to make three-minute statements for or against Luna’s plans. By overwhelming margins, the people who descended on the Capitol in early February said “Nay.”
While national news crews camped out in Madison, Wisconsin, and followed union-busting legislation in Indiana and Ohio, Idaho played host to its own skirmish. Last Monday, the Capitol rotunda filled with a student sit-in as Boise high-schoolers tried to bring a touch of Madison activism to the West. Three weeks ago, someone slashed Luna’s tires and defaced his car, and after he was verbally accosted in his own mother’s driveway, Fox News and National Review asked, “What’s going on in Idaho?”
Luna has said that his three bills represent the most comprehensive and substantial education reforms anywhere in the nation. Two initial bills that will phase out tenure, eliminate most union bargaining rights, and tie teacher bonuses to student performance have already cleared the senate and the house and are on their way to Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter’s desk.
Luna called their passage “a great step forward.” But harmony is nowhere in sight. In debate on the house floor earlier this week, Pocatello Democrat Roy Lacey called the bills “a reign of terror.” Cronin said the bills ensured “that teacher voices are effectively silenced.”
The third and most controversial part of the reform package, the so-called modernization and reform bill, remains in committee hearings. The law would eliminate 770 teaching positions and use the $100 million in annual savings from those cutbacks to increase pay for the state’s remaining 14,400 teachers and introduce sweeping technological changes—including the purchase of roughly 80,000 laptops or computer tablets for high school students.
Enter Apple and Intel.
A few weeks after Cronin outed the lobbying effort on Facebook, the Idaho Statesman printed a lengthy investigative piece by veteran political reporter Dan Popkey on the tangled web of Luna’s out-of-state financial contributors and the private education companies who stand to benefit from his reforms. Despite the Republican party’s statewide dominance, Boise is a moderate and in some districts liberal town, and in the combustible climate surrounding education reform, Popkey’s article dropped like a lit match.
The story alleges that during Luna’s 2010 reelection campaign, he “won support from education technology companies interested in changing state policy to boost their business.” By stitching together the connections of Luna’s professional and political networks in Idaho and Washington, D.C. (where he worked in George W. Bush’s Department of Education), of golf outings, dinners and support from Rupert Murdoch and Michael Milken, the story indirectly charges Luna with cronyism. More ominously, it suggests that a new “education-industrial complex” has planted seeds in Idaho’s business-friendly soil that will grow into towering dollar signs and steadily push government out of the education business.
The day after Popkey’s story ran, the Idaho Education Association (the state’s voluntary teachers’ union) sponsored a large protest rally in front of the statehouse. A reported 1,000 people demonstrated. Jonny Saunders, a Boise high school student, delivered a fiery speech of barely contained populist rage.
“Who is this bill for?” Saunders cried. “Businessmen, [Luna's] own power and out-of-state education companies,” he said. In the ten-minute barnburner, he called Luna “a crook” that “takes money from our teachers and gives it to private institutions” and “evil corporate interests.” According to Idaho Reporter, a video of the speech on YouTube garnered 18,000 views in less than 48 hours.
This week, the “modernization” plans are still treading through the senate’s education committee, and Cronin conceded that it’s premature to charge Luna or the state with corruption. “There are a lot of companies looking at Idaho right now who see a significant market opportunity that they want to explore,” Cronin said. “But proving any sort of quid pro quo is very difficult.”
It wasn’t Popkey’s story alone that informed the protestors’ conspiratorial suspicions. Days earlier, the Associated Press exposed a too-cozy relationship between the Idaho’s philanthropic Albertson Foundation and Virginia-based K12 Inc., a private education company that donated nearly $30,000 to Luna’s last campaign. The Albertson Foundation had been donating millions to the Idaho Virtual Academy, an online school that bought much of its curricula from K12. Meanwhile, the foundation chairman and Albertson’s supermarket heir Joseph Scott runs a private investment firm, Alscott Inc., which recently profited $15 million from the sale of its stock in—you guessed it—K12. In other words, the charity was funneling money to an education company that it also owned stock in, boosting profits for both in a clear conflict of interest.
“Those may be some of the most troubling allegations of all,” Cronin said. He is also troubled by the way the reforms were originally crafted. In the wide-ranging proposals, only a small wage-related portion was negotiated beforehand with representatives of the teachers’ union.
“If we’re going to undergo education reform, it needs to be driven by educators and education principles, not corporations and profits,” he said. And even if he can’t prove anything, Cronin said, that the whole affair “doesn’t pass the smell test.”
If that seems like a strange bit of code for a legislator to cite, Idaho politics can be a strange (and perhaps smelly) brew. In a state capital dominated by one party for so long, bipartisanship is often totally unnecessary. As the Statesman wrote in a recent editorial, “In a one-party political arena, one party gets to own its decisions exclusively.” Cronin’s statements, along with the contempt and conspiracy theories that have swirled in Boise’s winter air, are typical of the distrust for the unilateral plans of an unchecked Republican majority.
Cronin’s original Facebook post betrayed skepticism for the entire political process. Computer companies lobbying ahead of a potentially profitable bill is, he said, “inappropriate.” He said that legislators should not be involved in choosing which education companies the state will do business with. “That’s something our state agencies do,” he said.
Luna’s spokesperson, Melissa McGrath, said that Cronin is only half correct. Purchasing decisions, whether for a new laptop or a box of crayons, are entrusted not to any state agency, but to local school boards. And despite the widespread scorn for private education companies, much of Idaho’s online teaching has been and will continue to be provided by the publicly funded Idaho Digital Learning Academy, a state-funded online school currently used by some rural districts, and the Idaho Education Network (IEN), a federally funded program that will link all of the state’s public high schools with its colleges and universities by the fall of 2012. The only role the state will play, McGrath said, will be to ensure that any hired education company meets Idaho’s current standards for curriculum and teacher certification.
According to Idaho Reporter, some school districts are already getting out in front of the reforms by proactively purchasing small numbers of iPad tablets with federal grant money. The Gem State’s steps into hi-tech education are not an isolated case. Online education has been gaining traction nationwide, and in New York City close to 50 public schools have introduced computers in the classroom. But even there, administrators are proceeding cautiously—online classes are used primarily as supplements to traditional teacher-led learning.
Idaho’s turmoil goes beyond worries about modernization. Like in Wisconsin, a public sector union feels it is being legislated into irrelevance, and students fear for their own futures. But there is also a deep distrust of the government’s ability to solve the state’s budget problems, and tinkering with something as central to people’s lives as public education leaves many uneasy.
McGrath suggested that the looming specter of a private education takeover is a boogeyman. And while the reforms do cut jobs, the majority of the reallocated spending is actually devoted to increasing teacher pay. The bills would retroactively dole out two years of frozen salaries, increase the minimum salary of every teacher by $400 annually, and offer pay-for-performance bonuses upwards of $8,000 for every teacher in the state. The pay-for-performance element was arguably the only reform element that was planned with input from the teachers’ union. It would reward teachers “working in hard-to-fill positions, taking on leadership duties or working in a school that shows academic growth year after year,” McGrath said. Local school boards, she added, will determine the bonuses.
As for the folks from Apple and Intel, McGrath said that education lobbying is not a new phenomenon. She recalled that during a 2007 classroom enhancement package, several textbook and school supply vendors called the superintendent’s office. “Anytime there is a new source of revenue, you find vendors want to get involved.
Despite a month of steady opposition—a former Mountain Home Air Force Base employee has even started a ‘Stop the Lunacy’ recall effort—all three bills look likely to be signed into law. Throughout, McGrath said that her boss has remained stoic.
“It is change, and it is different,” she said. “Change is never easy.”