Idaho education reform foes outraise Luna allies

Idaho education reform foes outraise Luna allies
File Photo of Tom Luna (AP Photo/Jessie L. Bonner, File)

BOISE, Idaho (AP) - Teachers unions and other foes of proposed education reforms easily outraised those promoting the measures ahead of a Nov. 6 vote that will determine if the changes survive.

The group Vote No on Propositions 1, 2, 3 added $1.3 million through Sept. 30, compared with just $164,857 for the group Yes for Education, according to the Idaho secretary of state's office.

The Federation of Republican Women also has raised more than $100,000, mostly for radio ads to promote the reforms. And reform backers have raised at least $200,000 through a separate group that's concealing contributors' identities.

Still, opponents of the "Students Come First" overhaul pushed by Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Luna appear to have a significant cash advantage that they've used on, among other things, TV commercials seeking to persuade voters to reject the reforms.

The education reforms passed by the 2011 Legislature limit union bargaining power, promote teacher merit pay and require online classes.

The National Education Association union group, based in Washington, D.C., chipped in the most to fight the reforms, nearly $1.1 million.

"We're grateful to the hundreds of thousands of teachers who basically contributed that money that we are receiving from the National Education Association," said Brian Cronin, a Democratic state representative who is leading the effort to overturn the reforms. "People trust teachers and understand that teachers have the kids' best interest at heart."

Advocates of the reforms - including members of the Idaho Republican Party, Luna and Gov. CL. "Butch" Otter - have portrayed foes as being financed by out-of-state unions.

"In my opinion, it's just the unions trying to buy control of Idaho schools," said Ken Burgess, the lobbyist leading the push to raise money to promote the reforms.

Mack Shirley, a retiring Republican House member and former teacher from Rexburg, is helping defend the reforms at the ballot box and chipped in $2,000 to the effort.

Shirley said he was a concerned that his group had not yet amassed deeper reserves to spread its message. He's finding some people still don't know whether a "yes" or "no" vote supports the reforms.

"I do think we've got to get the public more informed, just on the correct procedure for voting," Shirley said. A "yes" vote is in favor of Luna's reforms, while a "no" vote on the three referendums would overturn them.

Among the major publicly disclosed donors who favor the reforms, direct-marketing health care business owner Frank VanderSloot gave at least $50,000 through his company, Melaleuca.

The Idaho Republican Party gave at least $10,000, while the Idaho Association of Commerce and Industry's political action committee gave $20,500.

Along with the teachers union, notable contributors to the anti-reform effort include state Sen. John Andreason, R-Boise, who gave $300.

It's possible that reform proponents have more cash than has been reported. That's because they're also raising money through the nonprofit Education Voters of Idaho, created Aug. 16. Those donors are exempt from disclosure, according to John Foster, the Boise-based lobbyist who founded the group.

Education Voters of Idaho financed $200,000 in broadcast ads promoting Luna's reforms but hasn't said where the money came from - or if it has more to spend. Foster said only that he was pleased with fundraising so far.

The group's secrecy is the subject of scrutiny by Secretary of State Ben Ysursa, who is investigating whether it's a political action committee that is required by law to disclose its contributors.