Idaho is beautiful – quite possibly the most inviting outdoor paradise south of Alaska and east of Hawaii. Maybe that was the motivation for requiring all Idaho high school students to take two online courses in order to graduate. In a perfect world that would free them up to spend more time outside. In reality, Idaho is in financial distress, culminating with drastic cuts in the education budget. Proponents of the new education laws in the state say that they intended to lower the costs of public education. Opponents see them as one more way in which the state is scuttling the educational ship and replacing teachers with technology. There is inherent benefit in having students complete some of their coursework online, but questions have been raised about the motivation behind the new requirement in Idaho.
The Idaho Education Situation
To understand the uproar over this law it is necessary to see it in the context of the Idaho educational system and two other laws passed in conjunction with this one. Idaho is currently in a budgetary crisis and is looking to balance its budget, in part, by reducing the cost of public education. One problem with this plan is that Idaho currently ranks 49th in the U.S. in regards to the number of students who go on to college (Huffington Post, 2011) and already spends less per student than any other state except Utah and Tennessee (Idaho Press-Tribune, 2010). As a whole the three new Idaho education laws are intended to accomplish the following:
- Limit collective bargaining by teachers – Teachers in the state can no longer bargain about class size, work day, personal leave, or sick time.
- Force teachers to renegotiate their employment on a yearly basis
- Implement merit pay based on student performance
- Eliminate tenure for new teachers
- Mandate online classes for high school students
- Cut 770 teacher positions over two years through attrition, increasing class sizes, and the requirement of online classes
(Spencer, March 7, 2011)
State education budget cuts have been an ongoing issue, leading to student walkouts and occupation of the statehouse. According to The State Department of Education and the Idaho Education Association, public schools cut $69 million in programs and services in 2010, meaning that between 2008 and 2010, Idaho public education lost $200 million from its budget. These budget cuts have led to reductions in teacher and administrator pay and a decrease in the minimum starting pay for new teachers (Idaho Press, Jan. 31, 2011). The staunch opposition to the proposal to require online classes for students comes into clearer focus when viewed in this light. But is a required online component for high school students really a bad idea in and of itself?
The Actual Plan
The original proposal by state legislators was to require eight credits from each high school student to graduate. In November of 2011, the State Board of Education approved a plan which will require two, one-semester online classes for each student. According to Idaho State School Board spokesperson Mark Browning, the content and delivery method of these courses is up to the discretion of each local school district. They may choose to develop their own classes or use materials produced by outside companies (Education Week, Sept. 12, 2012).
Opposition to the Law
On January 10, 2012, opponents of the bills exceeded the 48,000 signatures necessary to place a motion to repeal the new education laws on the ballot for the upcoming November election. This opposition is characterized by NEA president Dennis Van Roekel as not about money or balancing the state budget, but rather as a GOP attack on teachers. In an April address last year in Boise, the state capital, Van Roekel stated that the Idaho bills do not benefit students or teachers but are rather an assault on unions and the American Middle Class (OregonLive.com, 2011).
Opponents of the law have also begun a petition to recall State Superintendent of Education Tom Luna, one of the main forces behind the bills (Huffington Post, 2011). The announcement of the cuts to the education budget prompted student protests and a sit-in at the capitol rotunda in February of 2011 (Spencer, March 7, 2011). Idaho teachers in opposition to online classes are concerned that technology will change the way they teach and that they will not receive adequate training or the tech support necessary to effectively make this transition (Jacobs, Jan. 6, 2012). There is additional concern regarding how many teaching positions such a move will eliminate.
The Reality of Mandatory Online Classes
According to a statement from Superintendent Luna, repealing these measures, particularly the collective bargaining law, would return Idaho education to the status quo where all teachers are paid the same based on years of service, receive tenure, school staffing is based on seniority, and the state distributes retirement bonuses. In short, proponents argue that repealing the laws will push Idaho education back into the 20th century, rather than move it forward. (Huffington Post, 2011).
This statement is worthy of a bit of deconstruction before moving on to the impact of requiring online learning. The notion of not paying teachers based on years of service springs from the merit pay proposal. Holding teachers accountable for the entirety of their students' learning in a society which systematically undermines their ability to educate is criminal. I would propose that politicians' pay also be merit based then, contingent on how well they fund education, provide social services such as head start, and assure that every family has all the necessary resources to support their children's learning outside of school.
Regarding tenure and seniority, there is a value to experience and tenure is in place to protect more experienced (read more expensive) teachers from being replaced by less experienced ones to save money. These things alone do not push Idaho back into the Stone Age, nor do they hinder its advancement into the 21st century.
I am firmly in support of some mandatory online education for all students at all levels. Initiatives such as the one in Idaho have the potential to increase technological literacy and expand course offerings beyond what is possible in every school. The operative phrase here is "have the potential," though. Online classes that stress creative thinking, innovative uses of technology to synthesize and share, involve social interactions in support of learning, and allow students to explore areas of inquiry not available in their home schools should be widely supported. But canned, self-paced, isolationist classes which stress basic skills development, while having some value in limited quantities, only serve to enhance student disinterest in education and should be shunned.
The state of Idaho (and the many other states across this country implementing similar changes) needs to consider the long-term effects of slashing their education budgets and looking for quick fix solutions. While online learning done well can provide a significant benefit for students, developing innovative classes that challenge and engage students is not a cheap fix for the budgetary woes of a state in crisis. Long range planning regarding how to create a well-educated and productive population that can create new jobs and even new industries to help boost the state's economy is more challenging in the present, but provides hope for a much brighter future.