Ballot Propositions in Idaho: A Lesson for Education Policy Reform

As the U.S. presidential election raged on November 6, few outside of Idaho took note of a ballot measure there with important implications for education reform. On the heels of Chicago’s recent teacher strikes and in conjunction with several other state education ballot measures, Idahoans soundly defeated three propositions addressing many of the education reforms encouraged by the Obama administration:

Proposition 1 would have limited union bargaining rights to the subjects of wages and benefits and incorporated parent comments and student performance into teacher evaluations. It also would have made it easier for principals and district leaders to fire teachers and capped teacher contracts at two years.

Proposition 2 would have implemented a merit pay system for teachers and administrators linked to improvements in student test scores, and provided salary incentives to take hard-to-fill positions in such areas as science, math, and special education.

Proposition 3 would have provided laptops to every high school student and teacher and required students to take at least two online courses in order to graduate. It would also have enabled students to take up to 36 online college credits at state cost after completing high school graduation requirements.

Nicknamed the “Luna Laws” after their biggest champion, state education superintendent Tom Luna, the measures were passed by the Republican-led legislature and Governor C.L. “Butch” Otter in 2011. Opponents subsequently garnered 75,000 signatures in order to place them on the ballot for public consideration. They were defeated with 57%, 58% and 67% of the vote, respectively.

Why such a firm rejection? Proposition 3’s defeat can easily be explained by its $180 million price tag for laptops, which many view as unproven and unnecessary, especially in a state struggling to fund its education needs. But the free-market and right-to-work ideology behind Propositions 1 and 2 seem aligned with principles that one would expect residents of one of the nation’s most conservative states to favor. The measures’ proponents certainly thought so: they gained public support from the Idaho Republican Party and used a clip of Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney criticizing teachers unions in radio and television ads.

Analysis of voting percentages of individual counties shows that a correlation certainly exists between Republican votes and votes in favor of the measures. Yet while Romney garnered an average of 70.4% of the vote in each county, the most popular of the measures, Proposition 1, collected an average of only 45%.

Given its prominent opposition to education reform measures throughout the country on voting day, the National Education Association’s (NEA) support of the “Vote No” publicity campaign may seem the obvious explanation for this discrepancy. It and its state affiliate, the Idaho Education Association (IEA), footed 96% of the campaign’s $3.57 million budget. In contrast, the “Yes Campaign” raised only $2.77 million.

Yet merely labeling this another union victory is an oversimplification. Idaho’s most expensive ballot measure prior to those in question was a 1986 right-to-work law in which the unions contributed $2.8 million, compared to only $1.2 million from proponents. With nearly twice the financial advantage that they had this year, the unions lost.

Moreover, the Fordham Institute’s October report on teacher union strength labels Idaho’s weak, ranking 36th out of the 50 states and the District of Columbia. In the authors’ words, “While Idaho’s teacher unions are relatively significant donors and party-convention-goers… they operate within an unfavorable policy environment and have not garnered much of a reputation for changing that environment.” In short, Idahoans and the unions don’t have a cozy relationship.

So if partisan sentiment and union influence can’t adequately explain the results of Idaho’s propositions, what can? Just as in the presidential race, it’s all about swing voters. The county voting data mentioned above suggests that staunch conservatives followed right-to-work ideology to vote in favor of the measures. And chances are good that most of the smaller number of Democrats in the state followed pro-union principles to vote in opposition. That left the large number of the state’s moderate conservatives as the swing voters that both sides needed to convince.

In a state where Republicanism easily holds sway, this set of voters thinks more in terms of policy issues than partisanship. This year, at least, the fault line fell on education, with the Idaho State Journal calling the Luna reforms “easily Idaho’s top 2012 poll issue.” These voters’ reasons for ultimately rejecting the propositions are likely varied and complex, but several possibilities come to mind:

A Poorly Managed Process: Because he did not mention them in his 2010 re-election campaign, Luna’s proposals caught Idahoans by surprise. Particularly in a state wary of top-down mandates, the bill’s rapid approval despite teacher protests smacked of overreach by state authority into local schools. To cap it off, when the legislature voted on the bills in 2011, Luna estimated that the one-laptop-per-per-child program would cost $70.8 million. State officials announced a final cost more than twice as high just weeks before the November 6 vote. Sloppy management of the legislative and implementation process surely reduced public confidence in the measures.

One Rotten Apple…: While many of the components of each bill might easily have won public approval, a few prominent flaws were hard to overlook. Proposition 3’s high cost surely tainted the other two measures. But digging deeper, the laptop program within Proposition 3 overshadowed more clearly positive technology aspects comparable to those in neighboring Utah. Proposition 2’s various teacher salary incentives mostly made logical sense, but one of them would have rewarded teacher bonuses only if the entire school’s performance improved, and another would only reward teachers at schools ranking in the top 50% on state test scores. Such measures would discourage the best teachers from taking jobs at under-performing schools that need them most, further deepening inequities. Individual components like these probably soured some voters on the propositions’ more obviously positive aspects.

The Community Factor: In a state composed largely of rural and suburban neighborhoods, schools and the teachers and principals that run them are integral parts of the community. Voters thus had to juggle between their roles as parents, neighbors, and friends. It can be difficult to vote for a bill that your child’s teacher—who may also be your neighbor—opposes for being potentially harmful to her livelihood. So while Idahoans may have been skeptical of teachers unions, they may have been quite willing to listen to teachers.   

Like many states throughout the country, Idaho’s schools need reform. Propositions 1, 2, and 3 included policies that might well have raised education quality, and Idaho’s leaders should be praised for their valiant effort to implement them. As voters made clear, however, details matter. A poorly managed policy process and a few ill-conceived components prevented the state’s diverse education stakeholders from signing on to potentially groundbreaking changes.

Since the November 6 vote, opponents and proponents of the propositions have made overtures about returning to the drawing board to come up with a better education plan for Idaho’s schools. Let’s hope they do so, and that education policymakers throughout the country learn from their experience.

-Scott Odell

Scott Odell is a program assistant for the Partnership for Educational Revitalization in the Americas (PREAL) at the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington, D.C.

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