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Signing Off

Ed gets a boost, and our columnist declines neckwear

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Empty pizza boxes littered the once-lively Capitol press pit. One of the governor's finance guys was walking around with a digital camera forlornly documenting the brush strokes on the capitol's soon-to-be-sanded-off marble columns. A heap of garbage grew outside the Senate chamber.

And Gov. C.L. Butch Otter signed the state's largest single budget item into law. But hardly anyone was watching.

New schools chief Tom Luna now has $1.37 billion to work with as he reshapes public education in the state.

"Spend it wisely," the governor said to a friendly crowd standing in his office.

One television camera was there, but the reporter had questions about a child abuse proclamation. Unda' the Rotunda was there, but mostly interested in the stuffed otter on Otter's mantelpiece. Democratic Sen. Mike Burkett was there praising Luna's focus.

The governor took questions.

"Can I have a pen?" one woman asked.

While the session was marked by hairsplitting and rancor over the sales tax on groceries, transportation projects and smoking, the stars were aligned for Luna.

"Tom and I are on the same team," Otter said, before signing the budget. "We both have like hopes for the education system for the state of Idaho."

Luna, who calls his budget "customer-driven," said he was pleased with support from the public, from teachers and from school administrators.

Luna's major initiatives--$5.18 million for classroom supplies and $9.95 million for textbooks--are items that teachers have long requested. The budget also includes $5 million to help students who score low two years in a row on Idaho's achievement test. Teachers will get a bit of a raise (not as much as they would like), technology and online classes get a boost, and high school graduation requirements will be stiffened up.

Three months ago, Unda' the Rotunda asked who would speak for schools now that Idaho's K-12 education system is controlled by business and political interests. According to superintendents, the legislative budget committees and teachers, Luna is doing a fine job so far.

"I think we looked at it as an acceptable budget and got behind it," said Middleton School District Superintendent Rich Bauscher. He said Luna is still on his honeymoon with the education community.

"Next year they'll ask harder questions," he said.

Meanwhile, Luna has been quietly remaking the state education department in his image. More than two dozen longtime administrators have either been fired or have left the department since Luna came on board. Many young, ambitious educators are now leading divisions within the department.

Bauscher said the new folks are not afraid to ask questions and have been supportive so far. An Idaho Education Association spokeswoman said that Luna has kept them in the loop and promised to run new policies by them. But it remains to be seen how quickly and in what form Luna's vision for education will filter down to the classrooms.

School choice, innovation and accountability--Luna's buzz words on education--could spell major policy changes in the coming school year. Now that he has the money, Unda' the Rotunda asks again: Is anyone ­watching how he spends it?

When I covered the 2003 Idaho Legislature for the Idaho Press-Tribune, teachers marched on the Capitol steps. Reporters parsed the governor's words trying to figure out if a stated increase in school funding was really an increase. Lawmakers engaged in rabid debates about school choice and testing.

This year, the education committees gave Luna a wink and a nod. There was little debate on the direction of education in Idaho. The alignment of the philosophies of Otter, Luna, the State Board of Education and the Legislature appears to have ended the debate.

Maybe students will pick up the slack and start to buck the social engineering and testing regimes that have been coming down the pike.

All session long, I prowled the halls of the Legislature, trying to figure out who was pulling the strings, who was benefiting from new laws, what was driving the politics.

Not once did I wear a tie.

The question of social engineering was raised toward the end of the session, as in, the governor is playing dice with market forces by offering poor people a break on food taxes. Or, lawmakers are infringing on personal rights by telling us not to smoke in bowling alleys.

Yet every day, lawmakers bow their heads in prayer at the start of the session in the highest form of social engineering. They follow dated social codes, including regulations on dress and speech.

It was rare that anyone in the Statehouse asked me about what I wrote. Instead, lawmakers, lobbyists and other reporters constantly asked me to put on a tie. To become part of the institution that I was covering. To follow its rules.

On Monday, as I pulled up to the Statehouse on my bicycle, Sen. Brad Little walked out in jeans and a cowboy hat. He is working cattle this week.

The first thing he mentioned was my casual dress. But while it was an issue inside the building all winter, outside in the sun, dressed down for the ranch, the social codes of the Legislature faded away. We carried on with a relaxed conversation.

Idaho's citizen legislators adopt the dress and speech of the business and political class when they come to Boise. If they wore work boots instead of alligator skin boots in the halls of the Legislature, perhaps more of the people's business would get done.

As to the shaping of Idaho's school children, perhaps we have nothing to fear after all: I wore a tie every day of high school.