Bringing the Economy Home

Why Idahoans Rejected Proposition 3

Molly Messick / StateImpact Idaho

An informal poll of voters who cast their ballots here, at Boise's Longfellow Elementary, showed strong opposition to the package of education laws known as Students Come First.

Idaho voters delivered a ringing defeat of Propositions 1, 2 and 3 Tuesday, rejecting the three-part education overhaul backed by Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Luna and Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter, and approved by the Legislature in 2011.

The most resounding “No” came on Proposition 3, which addressed online education and technology in schools.  Voters rejected it by a two-to-one margin.  It’s worth asking: Why was that measure so overwhelmingly unpopular? 

Molly Messick / StateImpact Idaho

Jennifer Thornfeldt, who went to the polls with her daughter, Stella, was one of many Idahoans to reject the package of education laws known as Students Come First.

At her North End polling place on Election Day, mother Jennifer Thornfeldt offered one answer.  “There are districts that don’t have money for books or for supplies, and teachers are buying them out of their own salaries,” she said.  “To appropriate money toward buying computers seemed to me to miss the mark.”

Thornfeldt called herself “dyed-in-the-wool left-wing,” but her anxiety about committing a lot of state dollars to laptops and online education was clearly shared by Idahoans of diverse political persuasions.

“I think that a lot of Idahoans resented the idea of replacing teachers in the classroom with online courses,” says Andrus Center for Public Policy Director David Adler.  “Secondly, I think there was a lot of concern about the cost to the state of purchasing or leasing the laptops.”

Idahoans are, after all, a fiscally conservative bunch.  And when, two weeks ago, the governor and Hewlett-Packard executives announced that HP had won the contract to provide laptops to every Idaho high school student and teacher, voters seemed to focus not on the prospect of supporting Boise’s tech sector, but on the price tag.

When the Department of Education first proposed the one-to-one student-to-laptop ratio, Superintendent Luna estimated the cost at about $60 million over five years.  The contract with HP was for $180 million over eight years.

“I think the very fact that the costs exceeded what had been represented by the Department of Education struck Idahoans as the possibility of the state engaging in a journey without knowing what the real costs would be to taxpayers,” Adler says.

As vote-counting got underway on Tuesday and early returns indicated that the news might be good for the “Vote No” campaign, its spokesman, Brian Cronin, speculated that one more thing might have led voters to their high level of opposition to Proposition 3: it was simply easier to understand than Propositions 1 and 2.

The defeat of all three, Cronin said, would constitute a powerful statement.

“One of the resounding messages that will probably come out of this is that if we want to talk about real education reform, all of the stakeholders need to be involved from the get-go,” Cronin said.  “The top-down mandate approach simply doesn’t work.”

To hear an audio version of this story, click on the player below.


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