Otter wants group to study Idaho education options

BOISE, Idaho (AP) - Idaho Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter has asked the state Board of Education to shepherd a statewide discussion about improving schools after voters rejected a package of education reform laws touted by the governor.

Otter said Thursday that a broadly representative group of Idahoans yet to be selected will study options that could lead to changes without lawmakers creating new laws. But he said if the group determines legislation is necessary, lawmakers could take up the ideas in 2014.

"I'm not going to direct the discussion or the issues covered in any way," Otter said in a statement. "I will not be prescriptive other than to say I remain committed to equal access to opportunity for our children and to increasing support for our educators."

Otter's decision to form the group follows voters' rejection in November of all the laws passed in 2011 to change teacher contract negotiations, reward teachers for student achievement and integrate more online learning into high school classrooms. In doing so, voters dealt a stinging rebuke to Otter and Superintendent of Public Schools Tom Luna, the chief supporters of the measures.

When the ballots were tallied, two-thirds of voters rejected Luna's plan to spend $180 million to lease laptops and create online-class mandates. A bill to put limits on teachers' collective bargaining rights and institute merit pay for teachers also flamed out.

Otter, calling the latest effort on education reform a "fragile dynamic," said he expected the group to have meaningful discussions across the state.

"I'm asking that the Idaho Education Association, the Idaho Association of School Administrators, and the Idaho School Boards Association in particular to reach out to a diverse cross-section of their members to join this process," Otter said.

Penni Cyr, president of the Idaho Education Association, said in a statement her group was looking forward to taking part in the discussion.

"IEA members believe it is our moral imperative, as professionals, to be the voice for our students and for our profession," she said.

Luna, who unveiled the plan he called Students Come First just two days after lawmakers convened in Boise for the 2011 Legislature, also was looking forward to working with the new group. He said he has already met with various groups and was "anxious to move beyond discussion through an open, transparent, accountable process so we can all take the steps necessary to move our education system forward."

Otter's decision to form the group that will make recommendations for lawmakers in 2014 could take pressure off lawmakers in the 2013 Legislature, especially following the bruising November election where the $6 million campaign for and against the 2011 education laws was among the most expensive in Idaho.

"Men and women of good will can sometimes disagree passionately about the specifics of public policy, especially when it involves our children," Otter concluded. "But I'm confident we can broadly agree on the need for improving how we educate Idaho students."