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Idaho School Superintendent Race Moves to Front Burner

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The job pays more than $93,000. The position oversees an operating budget close to $2 billion. That includes more than 14,000 teachers and more than double that figure for administrative and non-certified personnel. There are hundreds of public schools spread across 115 districts in Idaho. But only 62 percent of those schools met Idaho goals for student proficiency in reading, math and language this year. And Idaho ranks near the bottom in national rankings of spending per student, about $6,500. These factors alone would make the race for Idaho's School Superintendent of Public Instruction the mostly hotly contested race of 2010. Or so you might think.

Unfortunately, with the exception of a few press conferences or fundraisers, the race has not registered a blip on the political Richter scale. That is until Oct. 5.

Within a 12-hour period, Republican incumbent Superintendent Tom Luna and his Democratic opponent Dr. Stan Olson, former superintendent of the Boise School District, faced off in two debates with very different audiences, the first hosted by Meridian School District No. 2 in conjunction with the Meridian Chamber of Commerce and the other by Idaho Public Television, broadcast live to the entire state from the Capitol.

Both the afternoon and evening debates focused on the complex issue of financing public schools. Stemming from a question about the shift from property tax support to the state's general fund, both candidates proposed alternative revenue sources.

Luna suggested an idea floated during the 2010 state legislative session, but unpopular with Republican leadership.

"In the future, we have to start collecting tax on Internet sales. We have to make sure that the Tax Commission has adequate staffing to make sure that people are paying their fair share," said Luna.

Olson supported the way funding has formerly been collected for schools: property tax valuation as revenue source:

"It was the third leg of funding in this state," said Olson. "It was predictable to a degree, but it was reliable."

In both the afternoon and evening debates, Luna's driving points championed his experience. He continued to call his vision for public schools a "customer-driven education system," and he touted the $100 million put into classrooms via programs like the Idaho Education Network and the Idaho Math Initiative. He stated that student achievement of defined goals has risen from 26 percent three years ago to 62 percent now. He also quoted a study claiming that Idaho is ranked behind only eight other states in math achievement.

"I don't know where anybody got the idea that Idaho is not capable of being a national leader," said Luna.

Olson's response to many of Luna's claims and statistics was to "check the facts." Olson said that not all statistics make Idaho look peachy: He claimed that high school graduates earning a college degree are at a low of 14 percent. He talked about helping immigrant families who aren't even literate in their native language, pilot programs to help with early childhood education and his own examples of trimming costs.

"I have a much different view of what Idaho is experiencing and where we are performance-wise," said Olson. "We need to do a lot better."

A philosophical chasm between the two was exposed in discussions of charter schools. Luna said charter schools serve to provide options to parents when considering their children's education. Olson said that the charter schools legislation--10 years old now--never fulfilled the intent of driving good ideas to the public classrooms.

Olson retired as Boise School District superintendent earlier this year. His supporters say Luna has been at the helm as more than $120 million was slashed from the education budget. Luna countered that he was responsible for identifying inefficiencies in his own department, resulting in roughly $300,000 in savings over the years. Luna also said he's been able to identify new sources of revenue such as funds from an endowment reserve fund from the Idaho Land Board.

Olson also took on Luna's support of Idaho's Scholastic Aptitude Tests.

"The ISAT is a low-bar performance exam. For us to be 'proficient,' for our children to be 'proficient,' they have to fall somewhere between a percentile of 13-23 percent," said Olson.

During the evening debate, a question e-mailed from a viewer asked if the two candidates would take the ISATs, showcase their scores and have their pay adjusted accordingly. Both candidates dodged the pay issue (though pay-for-performance for teachers did come up), with Olson admitting candidly that he'd decline the math section.

"Math is an area I've struggled with all my life," said Olson.

"You say this test is such a low bar," Luna charged, "and so easy, but it's something you'd avoid taking. That's because it's difficult, folks."

Idaho Public Television has scheduled two more live debates. First Congressional District incumbent Rep. Walt Minnick will face Republican challenger Raul Labrador and independent candidate Dave Olson on Thursday, Oct. 14, at 8 p.m, and on Thursday, Oct. 28, Republican incumbent Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter will face Democrat Keith Allred, Liberal Ted Dunlap, Independent Jana Kemp and Independent Pro-Life.