Moscow School District members (and teachers) are deciding whether to embrace mastery-based learning. Some history is in order, since I hear that there is a sense this is being shoved down some unwilling throats. And the history might explain that sense.

If you are new to Idaho, you may not remember the Luna Laws. Right after getting reelected in a close race in 2012, Tom Luna, Idaho Superintendent of Public Instruction, proposed some sweeping changes to Idaho education. These proposals, never mentioned on the campaign trail came to the Idaho legislature. Public testimony was overwhelmingly opposed but they narrowly passed and then-Governor Otter signed them.

A referendum got enough signatures for the 2014 ballot and Idaho voters overwhelmingly repealed them. The vote was 60/40 opposed.

Governor Otter learned his lesson and decided to ask for broad-based input to reform Idaho K-12 education. He got a large panel of stakeholders together and they had public meetings, took public comment and developed 20 recommendations for the legislature.

Recommendation No. 1 from Otter’s education task force was that Idaho embrace mastery-based learning.

I was a state senator in 2015 when HB 110 came before the Idaho Senate. It had passed the House unanimously and came as legislation to support the first recommendation from the governor’s task force: mastery-based learning. I was not up on the issue, so I asked around. A colleague, a retired teacher who had served on the task force as well as the Senate Education Committee and knew the issue shook her head. “I don’t know,” she muttered. What’s the problem? “It will be a lot of work for the teachers and we aren’t going to pay them any more to do that work!”

But she voted for it; and so did I. The bill passed the Senate unanimously and was signed by the governor. It is current Idaho law that Idaho K-12 schools will embrace MBL.

I don’t usually support top-down mandates like this. Such actions can create burdens for local districts, and the legislature has a history of not funding such mandates.

But I strongly supported Governor Otter’s process of engaging broad stakeholders and looking for wisdom. I thought the top-down action actually had bottom-up support. It really matters how you do things; the process.

And the Idaho Board of Education endorsed the action. We have a current member of the Idaho Legislature representing us here in District 5, Rep. Bill Goesling, who was on the Idaho Board of Education when this change was adopted. He voted to support it then. But he has now said he will ask the Idaho legislature and Board of Education to abort this embrace of change. In a few years he’s gone from embracing to rejecting. Such leadership is corrosive. It’s not good to wear flip flops in a Palouse winter.

Mastery-based learning was designed to integrate with a new funding formula for Idaho schools, all part of Otter’s task force grand design to reform Idaho’s K-12 education. But the new funding formula is also on the rocks. In the 2019 legislative session, after three years of interim committee study and recommendations, the House Education Committee chairman couldn’t even get his Republican committee members to show up for a debate. Goesling was one of the no-shows.

So, with legislators showing little progress on a funding formula change, and now some voicing weakening support for MBL, it looks like Idaho’s conservative nature will be embraced: no change.

My Senate colleague’s concern that there would be weak support for teachers asked to shoulder this effort has come to pass. The Idaho legislature has mandated this reform and spent less than .07 percent of the K-12 budget to support it. No wonder teachers feel something choking their throats. No wonder parents are perplexed and angry. Change requires investment.

Since this controversy has struck our community I have done my research independently. MBL can be a helpful and positive change in student assessment and thus in school performance. But I can understand how we got to this conflict. I would hope we can come out of it. I don’t expect the leadership to come from Boise.

Dan Schmidt is a family physician in Moscow. He has livedhere since 1989, and served Legislative District 6 and 5in the Idaho State Senate from 2010-2016.

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