Boise High Auditorium is cavernous. It is like an old opera house, with a big balcony, hundreds of lower seats, and a large, deep stage. Almost 40 Senators and Representatives sat on that stage under bright lights in the dim hall. We sat in a big semi circle behind tables set with table cloths and silent microphones. Dean Cameron, Chair of our Joint Finance and Appropriations Committee, gave a long and very incomplete rational as to why we cut the public school education budget by 7%, cut teacher pay, froze pay advancement and eliminated much of the state's reimbursement for educational field trips and busing. Tom Luna was cut off from going on longer on the same subject by a bell operated by three women stationed in front of the stage. I am guessing they will long remember getting to ding this Superintendent of Public Instruction into silence.
After the introductions, teachers from all over the state stepped to the microphone one after another to tell stories of what it is and has been like in their classrooms these past years. They described their students or trying to pay their bills. Together the 30 or so of them gave the most amazing State of the Schools I've ever heard.
--One male teacher described his school without walls, how for years they saved up to buy walls to make actual classrooms. He said that was before the budget cuts.
--A local teacher, the only one from Boise, described her work with at risk teens. She was inspiring. You could feel how much she cares, how talented she is with these kids. She was just laid off.
--One woman teaching in a school near the Wyoming boarder said she pays over $1,500 to buy classroom supplies for her kids. Otherwise they have to write letters explaining why they need them. She has tried to save them the embarrassment. She could make $20,000 more dollars a year more, an hour away in Wyoming.
--A teacher who has been teaching for decades and still works 11 hours a day, told a talented scholarship student to get certified in Washington not Idaho because the pay and the teaching conditions are better.
--One teacher described teaching for 19 years, feeling undervalued and underapprecaited. She said we could spend dollars when the kids are young and it's easier, or when they are older and it is intolerable. Schools or prisons. Our choice. Clearly young and energetic, she said she has had it, and may not teach again in Idaho.
--Others reminded us that we are 41st in the nation for teacher pay and have the 4th highest class sizes in the U.S.
--One teacher said she does not need Tom Luna's expensive programs and technology, his reading and math "initiatives," she knows how to teach.
--Some described being parents as well as teachers and worrying or even moving to keep their kids out of some of the more underfunded districts. They talked about crowded classrooms.
--Some described schools where art and science and civics has been cut and what might spark some kids to stay in school or be inspired to learn is lost.
--One powerful speaker challenged us as lawmakers to come to her class room and watch her teach.
On that stage, squirming in the hard chairs, lawmakers sometimes looked uncomfortable. Split almost evenly between Democrats and Republicans for once, it felt odd that not a single member of Republican House or Senate leadership was there, not the Chairs of the education committees John Goedde or Bob Nonini, yet all six members of Democratic leadership for the House and Senate were there. The only one allowed to speak was Dean Cameron. He was tasked to speak for all of those whose hands are dirty with this mess we have made of so many schools. And he conveniently neglected to mention the $44 million in discretionary stimulus dollars that Governor Otter has and wants to spend on roads and sewers, over and above the stimulus dollars Idaho was given specifically to spend on roads. Otter can spend that $44 million on anything.
No we didn't have to do this to teachers or schools or kids or to State employees. Someone chose this course. Dean, you can stand and say we had no other options, but you know better. We do not have to cut schools when we've already starved them to the bone.