I have been a member of the Idaho Education Association since I began teaching in the fall of 1998. My local is the Boise Education Association. I am not particularly active; for example, I have never served as a building rep, but I have always paid my dues, and I have always believed in organized representation at both the district level and at the statehouse. In a state with an almost preternatural hostility to my profession, I am happy to pay my fair share of what is costs to promote and defend public education, public school kids and public school educators.

On February 2, 2015, I sat down with four members of the IEA executive staff: Executive Director Robin Nettinga, President Penni Cyr, Communications Director Dave Harbison and Director of Public Policy Matt Compton to ask them a series of questions related to IEA priorities and policies. Our discussion lasted about an hour, and they provided me with pictures and data to illustrate some of their answers.

One thing I learned while preparing to write this post is that the IEA has been around for 123 years. If you take a look at their website’s historical timeline, you’ll see lots of details about historical and ongoing battles between the Idaho Legislature, the IEA and the voting public over school funding, teacher compensation, and the right to bargain collectively. Since the IEA’s founding in 1892, primarily to represent teachers across the state in their fight for adequate funding, it has always been involved in the struggle for fair and professional compensation for teachers. Unfortunately, squabbles over salaries and benefits can fuel negative perceptions of “union,” implying an institution that is too-narrowly focused on money. But the fight over money is important in a much larger way, because it translates into perceiving teachers as valued professionals. The broader vision of the IEA, and by extension their advocacy for fair compensation, is fundamentally about standing up for every Idaho student’s right to high-quality, publicly-funded education.

Chief among the association’s policy priorities for the 2015 legislative session is finding solutions to Idaho’s teacher-shortage crisis. Across the state, districts are struggling to staff classrooms with qualified teachers, especially in rural areas that border on states offering significantly higher compensation. In her January address to the Joint-Finance Appropriations Committee, Superintendent Sherri Ybarra placed “recruitment and retention of qualified teachers” first in her laundry list of “collective problems that are common across our state.”

Desperate districts are hiring alternative-certified, pre-certified and provisionally-certified personnel with meager training and/or little experience, to fill their staff rosters. The IEA has been tracking data on certification since 2004 and is very concerned about the precipitous decline in new students seeking to enter the profession and out-of-state teachers seeking Idaho jobs (down from almost 900 to just 68 last year) as well as an increase in the number of certificated teachers leaving the profession. Teach for America plans to introduce about 15 first-year teachers in Nampa, Homedale and Caldwell next year.

Debates over tiered licensure and career ladder policy changes are hot topics too. Both of these compensation plans would tie pay to performance and are considered deal-breakers for luring new teachers into the profession without substantially raising entry-level salaries. Of the two, career ladder is understood to be somewhat less contentious because although minimum salaries would increase statewide, districts would still negotiate salaries at the local level. The IEA has consistently advocated  linking teacher reimbursement to multiple measures of professional competency that might include, but would not be limited to, student performance outcomes, e.g. test scores.

tiered licensure

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Teachers prepare to speak on tiered licensure at Mountain View High School in Meridian.

The IEA is also concerned that the legislature’s goal is to return to 2009 levels of spending. That level does not account for growth since 2009, e.g., the 160 new classroom units that have been added across the state, and the approximately $48 million dollars needed to fund them.

Adequate and equitable funding is a long-standing bone of contention. Although the principle is enshrined in Idaho’s state constitution, it has been delayed and denied well past the point of crisis. Governor Otter, in a moment of candor, admitted as much in his October 2014 gubernatorial debate with John Bujak and A.J. Balukoff when he said, “I don’t know that the state of Idaho has ever met that constitutional mandate because of the rural nature of Idaho.” (time signature: 27:40). The IEA has not been approached by any party seeking to bring suit against the state… yet.

The Idaho Education Association

  • Bargains with districts for salary and benefits on behalf of 10,000 member teachers
  • Advocates for teachers in the Legislature
  • Provides high-quality professional development during annual Summer Institutes, including seminars on technology, Common Core and classroom management practices

Beyond my monthly dues, I chip in $5 each month to the IEA Children’s Fund. The fund exists to provide food, school supplies, health care and emergency assistance to Idaho children and families struggling with daily poverty or unforeseen crises. Recently, a teacher’s request for a kid who needed his flute fixed so he could stay in music class was approved; music class was this student’s main motivation for attending school.

Since its inception in 1988, the IEA has raised $1.5 million almost entirely from members’ monthly donations along with a bit of foundation support.When members make a request for a student or family in need, fund guidelines allow for gifts of up to $150 per individual or $300 per family for food, clothing, medical and other incidentals.

The IEA usually fields a lot of requests at the beginning of the year when kids need school supplies, during the winter when kids need coats and at the end of the year when kids are facing three months without school meals or school lessons. Because I work in a Title One school, I see the struggles of hungry, homeless and poor students every day, so I was curious to learn if the IEA’s Children’s Fund is experiencing a significant increase in requests.

IEA Children's Fund

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IEA Children’s Fund thank-you note.

I learned that while applications to the fund typically fluctuate throughout the year, requests to meet need are increasing year-round. The Children’s Fund board now meets almost daily to review and respond to requests that go beyond their $150/$300 max. 

It’s painful to teach in a state that consistently ranks dead last or next-to-last in many measurements of public school funding, achievement and postsecondary preparedness. The IEA approaches turning those numbers around as something that can only happen if stakeholders work together to clearly identify long-term goals and match them to long-term investments. They work to collaborate whenever possible with the State Board of Education and the Idaho School Boards Association, and they organize opportunities for communicating stories from the field to the Legislature so representatives can hear and understand the impact of their decisions in Idaho classrooms. But the IEA’s biggest challenge today might be the reassessment of the privatization ideology and practice that has taken hold in Idaho.

According to IEA Executive Director Robin Nettinga, it wasn’t so long ago that when stakeholders would gather with legislators and the governor to talk things over, the people in the room would include the PTA, local school boards, the IEA and sometimes the State Board of Ed. Now, if there are 12 people in the room besides the legislators, 10 of them will be corporate lobbyists jockeying for their piece of the pie. Nettinga pointed out that when 50 percent of a state’s revenue goes to fund public education and those funds are opened up to private bidding and profit, that inevitably creates a very different sense of what the goals are. Corporate contracts, outside consultants and professional lobbyists devoted to the daily pursuit of deals notwithstanding, the IEA continues to focus on its version of the essential questions: What is best for Idaho students, their families and communities? How can we achieve that?

As the sole voice speaking for teachers at the Legislature — members and non-members alike — the IEA represents strength in numbers and a tenacious commitment to the ideals — and practicalities — of public education.

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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.