Recent Republican efforts in Idaho to limit teacher union power are the latest salvo in a long-standing labor war. In 2002, a law entitled the Voluntary Contributions Act hampered the Idaho Education Association’s fundraising tactics. This law and its legal conclusion in Ysursa v. Pocatello Education Association forged the battle lines for the “Luna Laws” and the Legislature’s continued efforts to curb teacher bargaining and tenure rights.


During the 2002 Idaho legislative session, lawmakers overwhelmingly passed what Betsy Russell of the Spokesman Review referred to as “the state’s first ever midyear cutback in school funding.” After the session ended, Governor Dirk Kempthorne signed into law a budget that cut $23 million from the original Idaho public education fund for that year. This prompted thousands of educators and opponents of the cuts to protest across the state. The dissatisfaction carried into the November elections. Democrats, fueled by the budget cut outrage, almost doubled their numbers in the Legislature, from 12 to 23 legislative seats. The Political Action Committee for Education, the political spending arm of the Idaho Education Association, gave generously to most of the newly elected Democratic candidates.

This included Democrat Marilyn Howard, who beat Republican Tom Luna in the race for Superintendent of Public Instruction. Howard received the maximum $10,000 donation allowed under Idaho law for a state candidate. Republican Tom Luna did not receive donations from PACE and lost by more than 25,000 votes despite outraising Howard. Also in 2002, Representative Shirley Ringo, who had lost her race by only 198 votes in 2000, received the maximum donation of $1,000 in her primary race and another $1,000 in the general. She beat Republican Gary Young, who had voted for the budget cuts.

The power of the teachers’ union did not go unnoticed. Prior to 2003, public employee payroll deductions to PACs were legal and accepted in Idaho. To bolster political fundraising, many Idaho workers, such as teachers and firefighters, authorized their union’s PAC to deduct a portion of their paycheck for political campaign spending. In 2003, Representative Dennis Lake introduced House Bill 329, the “Voluntary Contributions Act.” Rep. Jack Barraclough, an Idaho Falls Republican, called the measure a “freedom bill.” On March 8, 2003, however, an editorial by the Idaho Statesman disagreed with Barraclough, calling the Voluntary Contributions Act nothing more than a bill that settles “an old score with the state’s teachers’ union, which has criticized the Legislature’s decisions on school funding.” The Statesman went on to claim that freedom of contributions already existed before the Voluntary Contributions Act since Idaho has been a Right-to-Work state since 1985—union membership and contributions to unions were both already voluntary. Essentially the VCA prohibited automatic payroll deductions to PACs from public employees such as teachers who give monthly to their union. The law applied to state employees and also prevented employees of local governments, such as school districts and municipalities, from contributing through payroll deductions.

The bill triggered a vocal backlash among public employees. Viewed as legislative retaliation in response to Democratic gains during the 2002 elections, union leaders spoke out. In March 2003, Dave Whaley of the Idaho AFL-CIO called the bill “vindictive,” while Jeff Olson of the Service Employees International Union implied the legislators who sponsored the bill wanted union members to “sit down, shut up and take it.” The bill eventually passed in the House 40 to 29 and the Senate 19 to 16, with only partial Republican support. Republican Rep. Steve Smylie voted against the bill in an effort to preserve freedom of speech. “Free speech is easy, when we agree with it,” Smylie said in 2003. At the end of the 2003 legislative session, however, Governor Kempthorne signed the bill into law.

A coalition of labor groups sued the state and two lower courts found that the VCA violated First Amendment rights. But in 2009, six years after passage, the U.S. Supreme Court sided with the state and the VCA finally became law.


Idaho Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Luna votes in Nampa in November 2012 as the three education laws bearing his name are voted down.

Adam Eschbach / Idaho Press Tribune
Idaho Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Luna votes in Nampa in November 2012 as the three education laws bearing his name are voted down.

After his 2002 defeat, Luna worked in the Bush administration as an advisor to then U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige who helped create the “No Child Left Behind” Act. The National Education Association, the nation’s largest teachers’ union, had been highly critical of the “No Child Left Behind” Act, claiming the law set teachers and students up for failure. In 2004 Paige referred to the NEA as a “terrorist organization” and further compared the union to southern segregationists (he eventually apologized for this statement).

In 2006, after serving three years under Paige, Luna returned to Idaho and again ran for state superintendent. Democrat Jana Jones, Luna’s opponent, received $5,000 from the Idaho Education PAC.  Luna narrowly won by 11,158 votes.

In 2010 the IEA again donated money to Luna’s opponent, this time $10,000 to Democrat Stan Olson’s campaign. Olson lost to Luna by more than 90,000 votes.

In 2011, in another highly contentious fight that mirrored the Voluntary Contributions Act battle eight years earlier, Senate Bill 1108 passed in the Idaho Legislature. This bill later became Prop 1 on the 2012 Idaho ballot. SB 1108 was just one of three laws passed that year that Superintendent Luna labeled education reform. The other two laws, SB 1110 and SB 1184, focused on pay-for-performance and classroom technology, respectively.

Like the VCA, SB 1108 limited the power of teacher unions. The intended goals of both the Voluntary Contributions Act and SB 1108 are disputed, but the parallels between the two are unmistakable. Like the Voluntary Contributions Act, SB 1108 passed with only partial Republican support. Nine Republicans defected, making the final vote in the House of Representatives 48-22 in favor of the bill.

On March 8, 2011, Coeur d’Alene Republican Bob Nonini said that SB 1108 “returns authority and accountability to school boards. For too long school boards have been shackled to agreements made 10, 20 or even 30 years ago.” Nonini said the bill called for “streamlining collective bargaining” and “phases out continuing contracts.”

However Boise Democrat Brian Cronin called the bill “flawed 17 ways from Sunday” and a “slap in the face” that would “ensure that teachers’ voices are effectively silenced.” Cronin said the legislation “makes teachers and the [Idaho Education Association] our adversaries rather than our collaborators.”

Among other things, SB 1108 mandated that local education organizations (labor unions) must represent a majority of a district’s teachers in order to engage in collective bargaining. The bill limited salary and other forms of compensation while essentially eliminating renewable contracts. Also unions would need to prove annually that they represent a majority of a district’s teachers. If a district did not have a union that represented a majority of teachers or if no contract agreement was reached through collective bargaining by June 10 of each year, the school board would set compensation.

While the VCA focused on restricting political fundraising for public employee organizations, SB 1108 limited teacher’s bargaining power and further crippled the IEA. The IEA’s history of donating to Democratic candidates in Idaho made it a clear target of Republicans. The Voluntary Contributions Act may have been a neutral and even handed law, in the eyes of the Supreme Court, but its effect hampered the IEA’s fundraising capabilities by forcing the union to actively solicit donations in a new manner, as opposed to the convenience of direct deposit.

Like the Voluntary Contributions Act, initial opposition to the Luna Laws also came from the IEA and similar organizations. In 2011, an organization called “Idahoans for Responsible School Reform” successfully created a referendum on the Luna Laws by collecting more than 210,000 signatures. The IEA assisted this new organization by spearheading signature drives.

On May 17, 2011, Idahoans for Responsible School Reform issued a statement attacking Superintendent Luna.

“What is Tom Luna afraid of?” asked Mike Lanza, chairman of Idahoans for Responsible Education Reform. “He is afraid of what will happen if the voters of Idaho get an opportunity to shoot down his political agenda.” In November 2012, Lanza’s prediction came true and the Luna Laws were rejected. Prop 1, the referendum on SB 1108, was defeated by over 94,000 votes statewide.

Certainly other factors, such as the earlier crafting of the Luna Laws without IEA input and the well run “Vote No” campaign, led to the defeat of the education propositions. The 2012 election, though, shows that while Idahoans may continue to elect anti-union Republicans, there is a limit to the degree of regulation in the classroom that citizens will accept.

Despite Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter’s newly established task force on education reform, Republicans in the Idaho House and Senate education committees reintroduced anti-union measures this year, mirroring many of the Prop 1 labor issues. The Idaho School Boards Association hoped that the union would support at least part of the legislation, but the teachers’ union called the recycled bills a renewed attempt to pass Prop 1.

While funding and labor issues certainly loom large in reforming the nation’s education system, the decade-old conflict between Idaho Republicans and the Idaho Education Association is now distracting from the very reform it seeks. Perhaps the Education Task Force that Otter recently convened will provide new space for the reform project—particularly since the group has declined to discuss labor issues.

As Otter stated in forming the Task Force: “I expect this group to have meaningful discussions and reach out to communities all across our state. …Everyone involved will be responsible for the tone and substance of this conversation.”

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The views and opinions expressed here are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of Boise State University, the Center for Idaho History and Politics, or the School of Public Service.

  • Excellent synopsis!

  • Anthony Shallat

    Thanks Leif. I spent a lot of time on it and I feel like its a story worth being told. History repeats itself.

  • Nice work on this Tony. While I don’t agree with moving classrooms to an completely online atmosphere, something does need to be done to improve the quality of education in areas outside of the Treasure Valley. The internet provides access to relatively inexpensive learning material that could be great use to school districts with limited funds located around the state. I recognize that many of these districts are hard to “wire” into the existing infrastructure. This creates yet another expensive problem that needs to be addressed. Also I believe a performance based pay isn’t such a bad either. Teacher’s should always be trying to improve themselves, but why should they if they know there will not be rewarded for it? It puts all of the power into teachers that have been around for far too long and gives reason for qualified younger teachers to not come to Idaho.

  • Here’s a link to where Idaho ranks as of 2013 with the rest of the nation.

  • Anthony Shallat

    Thanks, Corbin. I agree with you that our education system needs to evolve. I dont think pay for performance sets teachers up for success though. I believe that most pay for performance systems create classrooms that solely teach towards the test. The best indicator of success, in my opinion, is whether a student can think critically. There are few tests administered that measure that well. In this article, though, I simply wanted to point out the Idaho GOP’s concentrated effort to restrict the IEA’s influence as much as possible.