Idaho education reform foes outraise supporters

JOHN MILLER, Associated Press

BOISE, Idaho -- Foes of proposed education reforms in Idaho 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.

Reform backers also have raised at least $200,000 through a separate group that's concealing contributors' identities.

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

The education reforms were passed by the 2011 Legislature to 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, have portrayed foes as financed by out-of-state unions.

Luna and Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter picked Mack Shirley, a retiring Republican House member and former teacher from Rexburg, to help assemble the cash necessary to defend the reforms at the ballot box next month.

Shirley, who chipped in $2,000 to the effort, said he was a concerned that his group hadn't yet amassed deeper reserves to get its message out. He's finding there are still some people who are uncertain of whether a "yes" or "no" vote is in favor or against the reforms.

For the record, a "yes" vote favors Luna's reforms, while a "no" vote on the three referendums would overturn them.

"I do think we've got to get the public more informed, just on the correct procedure for voting," Shirley said. "We thought the `yes' would tell them, but apparently there's still some confusion."

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 still possible that proponents of the reforms have raised additional cash that's not been reported.

That's because they're also raising money through a nonprofit group, created Aug. 16 and dubbed Education Voters of Idaho. Those donors are exempt from disclosure, said John Foster, the Boise-based lobbyist who founded the group.

That group financed $200,000 in broadcast ads promoting Luna's reforms but hasn't said where the money came from.

Foster didn't respond immediately to an email on Thursday requesting the total amount Education Voters of Idaho has raised.

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