Idaho’s Battle Over Education Reform
There was never a real chance that supporters of a recall of Idaho’s Superintendent of Public Instruction would be able to collect the nearly 160,000 valid signatures needed to force a recall of the controversial superintendent. Now that the recall effort is officially dead, the question becomes whether opponents of Tom Luna’s education reform ideas can keep the public concern – even anger – at a level sufficient to make a 2012 referendum, already qualified for the ballot, successful?
I’d argue the failure of the recall is a significant strategic setback for those who think Idaho’s education policy is headed in the wrong direction. The decision to mount the recall was, with perfect hindsight, a miscalculation that will now be portrayed as a sign of weakness.
Recall organizers, like Jim Allen in Pocatello, claim a moral victory with the recall effort despite not putting the superintendent’s job on the line.
“We’re not here whining and crying because it didn’t happen. We wanted to send a message and I think we succeeded in doing that,” Allen said.
We’ll see, but moral victories never win elections.
For his part, Luna said recall backers have made the issues surrounding education reform “personal,” while he’s focused on implementing the laws. After upsetting the status quo, the superintendent now is the status quo and so far he seems to be doing a credible job of playing both offense and defense. Luna is turning out to be, whatever you think of his policies, one of the more media savvy Idaho politicians in a long time.
If opponents of what Luna engineered in this year’s Idaho Legislature hope to overturn those laws next year they’ll need three things that may be hard to manufacture: money, a really compelling message and a level of public outrage that can be maintained for the next 17 months.
Recall opponents spent little money gathering signatures over the last few week – there are conflicting stories as to how short they fell – and they never came up with a consistent message about why what Luna and legislative Republicans have done is so harmful. They’ll need to do a lot better in the months ahead and history would indicate that they will need serious money to run a real campaign.
You can take it to the bank that the pro-reform forces will be organized, disciplined and well-financed.
In his statement in the wake of the recall failure, Republican Party chairman Norm Semanko seemed to indicate that he wants the continuing debate to stay focused on what became the GOP talking points during the 2011 legislature, namely curbing the union power of teachers.
Semanko said, in part, the efforts to place “Union interests ahead of the true recipients of public education, the students, have failed in Idaho.” That line of argument, coupled with a desire to control spending on education, essentially carried the day for the reform efforts during the legislative session.
The challenge for those who succeeded in putting the reform package on the ballot next year is to have the resources, the discipline and ability to make the referendum about something more fundamental – the future of education in Idaho. They may well have passion on their side, but they’ll need a strategy and money to overturn what is now the status quo in Idaho education.
A month can be a long time in politics. Seventeen months can be a life time.