A passion for education
Tom Luna spent most of his career in business, but in the last decade began focusing on education issues at the local, state and federal level. In January, Luna began his tenure as the Idaho Superintendent of Public Instruction. It’s a job he’s passionate about—and he can’t help seeing it through the lens of an experienced businessman.
“I think if we’re going to take a good education system and make it great, we have to go through the process of transforming public education from a bureaucracy-driven system to a customer-driven system,” Luna says.
Luna defines the customers of education as Idaho’s students and their parents, and he has spent time getting to know them. His own career in education began when, as a parent in Nampa, he got involved with passing a local bond to build a new school. One thing led to another, Luna says, and he soon acquired a seat on the Nampa School Board, where he remained for seven years, three years as chairman. Luna’s involvement expanded to statewide issues, and he also became acquainted with other states’ movement toward standards-based education and statewide assessments. During this time, he met with Texas education officials working under then-governor George W. Bush. In 2002, he ran for the state superintendent seat. Although his bid was unsuccessful, he later received a call from the White House inviting him to serve as a senior adviser to Secretary of Education Rod Paige. From 2003 to 2005, Luna commuted from Idaho to Washington D.C., and also traveled around the United States focusing on rural education and school choice.
Luna calls the experience fascinating, and he believes it prepared him for his current position as superintendent.
“It made me a better superintendent,” Luna says. “The opportunity to work on education at the local, state and federal level was very valuable.”
After living in Idaho for nearly 30 years, Luna realizes the importance of local control for Idaho education, but also acknowledges the state’s role in funding education. In late January, Luna proposed a $1.37 billion budget for public schools, which encourages classroom enhancements and higher student achievement. At press time, the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee (JFAC) had approved Luna’s budget proposal.
Highlights of that budget include:
Choice in education
While chairman of the Nampa School Board, Luna oversaw the completion of one of Idaho’s premier charter schools. A charter school is basically a school of choice, allowing parents to have more say in their child’s education.
“A one-size-fits-all school system cannot account for the needs of children who struggle or the needs of children who excel,” Luna says. “I support great education no matter where it takes place.”
Luna cites the Idaho Virtual Academy (IDVA) as an example of how students anywhere in Idaho can choose an alternative to the traditional public school model. The IDVA is an accredited public school, but instead of presenting curriculum in the traditional classroom, students access their lessons online.
“Whether it’s charters, academies or magnet schools, we must provide choice in public education,” Luna says.
More money in the classrooms
Luna calls the $25 million classroom enhancement package “the shining star” of the 2007 budget. When he was on the campaign trail, Luna spoke with numerous public educators who expressed their need for extra classroom supplies. Idaho teachers often pay for basic supplies out of their own pockets.
“Many, many teachers expressed this as a concern,” Luna says. “Our schools should have the supplies they need.”
If passed by the Idaho Legislature, Luna’s budget will provide a $350 allowance for every teacher to help provide some of those supplies. “This is a great way to show our teachers they’re valued,” Luna says.
In addition to the allowance, Luna hopes to fund new textbooks for Idaho classrooms, to the tune of nearly $10 million.
“Every parent and teacher knows that current, accurate textbooks are essential to a student’s success,” Luna says. “Yet many of our classrooms lack the textbooks they need.”
With Luna’s proposal, the state would provide $3 for every $1 a local district invests in textbooks. This annual investment would ensure up-to-date materials, Luna says.
Luna also hopes to provide tutoring and remediation for the 20,000 Idaho students who don’t meet proficiency in the Idaho State Achievement Test. In addition, his plan would provide funding for students who do meet proficiency and want to take up to six credit hours of college classes during their junior or senior years.
Luna believes that, ultimately, this initiative will help college enrollment among Idaho students.
“We recognize that Idaho has one of the lowest percentages of high school students who go on to college,” Luna says, noting that only 45 percent of high school seniors go on to college upon graduation.
Luna hopes to change that.
Through dual enrollment in high school and college courses, Luna says high school students will get the extra boost they may need to pursue higher education post-high school. “Today in Idaho, 75 percent of students who take dual enrollment courses in high school go on to college,” Luna says.
Luna envisions an Idaho where it’s ordinary for a student to graduate with a high school diploma and an associate or technical degree.
“Imagine what that would do to make Idaho graduates more attractive to employers,” Luna says.
Making schools safer
When he proposed his budget in January, Luna told the members of JFAC about a relatively small earmarked amount—$150,000—to fund a security review of Idaho public schools.
Public school safety is a reoccurring issue around the nation, and Luna says he wants to make sure Idaho public
schools are safe.
Luna reminded the JFAC members about recent school violence incidents, including a fatal shooting in January in a Tacoma, Wash. school and the deaths of five students in October in a Pennsylvanian Amish schoolhouse.
In 2007, should the Legislature approve his budget, Luna will fund a security review to determine the vulnerability of Idaho’s schools. In 2008, Luna hopes to report the findings and determine how to make necessary improvements.
“I would like to see every classroom have, at minimum, a phone with a direct connection to the outside world and a silent alarm,” Luna says. “Every school should have a basic closed-circuit surveillance system and the ability to lock doors at the push of a button. We don’t ever want to look back and wonder if we could have done more to protect our schoolchildren.”
Luna admits that it’s unusual for Idaho to choose a superintendent who isn’t a former educator, but he believes he is the right man for the job. During his term, Luna hopes to see Idaho’s education system transition from good to great.
“I’m very passionate about public education,” Luna says. “I really think that in the 21st century, public education is the great equalizer. I think it’s the way we can make sure that every child has opportunities to pursue the American dream … I believe the American dream is alive and well, especially in Idaho.”
Tessa Schweigert, Boise State University