Despite Luna spearheading the effort, not all GOP lawmakers fell into line. Republican state Sen. Dean Cameron, who chairs the finance committee in the legislature, spoke out against the laptop-mandate bill.
“I’m voting against this bill because…not one stakeholder is supporting it—not the superintendents, not the school boards, not the teachers, not the parents. Every single stakeholder… has testified opposed to it,” Cameron explained at the time. It was a quote that later appeared in the arguments of the Vote No campaign in the state voter guide.
When the bills were finally passed in March, all of the Democratic legislators voted in opposition. They were joined by nine of Idaho’s 28 GOP Senators, and 13 of the 57 House Republicans. Some in the GOP paid a price for their opposition. Dean Cameron faced a primary challenge. He survived, but his colleague, Republican state Sen. Tim Corder, who had also opposed the Luna bills, was defeated in a primary.
Support for public education in Idaho cuts across party lines. Forcing some Republican lawmakers to walk the gang plank for opposing would be education reform did not go over well with GOP-leaning Independent voters. Moreover, our polling showed that not only were teachers revered in Idaho, but the Idaho Education Association was viewed more favorably than any of the proponents of these laws, including Tom Luna and Gov. Butch Otter.
When we asked Idaho voters who they blamed for the problems facing public schools, 48 percent of them pointed to elected officials for failing to adequately fund the schools as their combined first and second choices. For 33 percent, it was the top choice.
By contrast, only 17 percent blamed the teachers’ unions for making it hard to fire bad teachers as their first choice. Yet the Republican establishment repeatedly touted the fact that the governor and the legislature had passed these “sound reforms” as a reason for voters to embrace them. Party leaders treated the ballot measure fight as if it were like any other campaign where they could deliver the marching orders on how to vote and the rank-and-file would fall in line.
More than 3,000 volunteered to collect the signatures needed to put the propositions on the ballot. Many of them were subsequently part of the Vote No campaign’s field operation.
Two groups, Idahoans for Responsible Education Reform, which represented parents, and the Idaho Education Association (IEA), which represented teachers, organized the 2011 petition drive. In the spring of 2012, they launched the “Vote No on Propositions 1, 2 & 3” campaign.
We learned several important things in the focus groups and polling conducted by Grove Insight. People had little recollection of what these laws were about and needed to be reminded. But if they remembered anything, it was that they didn’t like the legislation because of Tom Luna.
Luna was a polarizing figure. He was seen by many as a politician looking to reward his campaign contributors—the operators of “virtual schools” that offered online classes.
Half of the Republicans in our survey gave him negative marks on his job performance. That led to our early decision to brand these propositions as the “Luna Laws” in our messaging.
Finding the right language and medium
While we were confident that using the Luna Laws label would help, we had to make sure we didn’t put too much focus on Luna and his donors. We needed to emphasize the larger point that these laws hurt students and teachers.
So we also used web-based surveys to test our ads and gained valuable insights on how best to convey the damage these laws would inflict on students. Saying kids would be treated like “widgets on the assembly line” was good prose, but we found that the actual images turned voters of.
Another important piece of information we gleaned from our research was the adverse feelings people ad about the laptop mandate—Proposition 3. The notion that taxpayers would have to foot the bill so students could take online classes provided by for-profit, out-of-state companies cut against the grain of the state’s fiscal conservatism.