- Associated Press - Monday, January 27, 2014

BOISE, Idaho (AP) - Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Luna said Monday he won’t run for re-election, clearing the way for Democrats and Republicans in a race for an open seat.

Luna, the architect of the failed “Students Come First” overhaul rejected by voters in 2012, said he decided not to run for a third term for fear his candidacy would become a political distraction and take away from his efforts to implement recommendations of a recent task force.

At a news conference, Luna said everything he’d proposed this year was being scrutinized through the lens of politics. That includes bolstering teacher pay, as opposed to Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter’s recommendation of a teacher pay cut.

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As a consequence, Luna said he decided to remove himself from the political discussion in a bid to focus on making sure as many of the task force’s 20 recommendations as possible got off to a good start.

“I’m going to be working hard for the next 11 months, not being distracted with a campaign,” said Luna, flanked by his wife as well as legislative leaders for his announcement. “Everything I’ve done this legislative session has been looked at through this lens.”

Luna says he’s talked with former Republican state Sen. Melinda Smyser about running. But he said he’s not yet ready to endorse anyone.

Smyser, who attended Luna’s news conference Monday but left quickly, couldn’t immediately be reached.

Currently an aide to U.S. Sen. Jim Risch, R-Idaho, Smyser would likely have to quit her post before announcing a state superintendent run, according to federal law governing partisan elections.

Last year, a task force appointed by Otter recommended, among other things, overhauling the system that governs how educators are compensated.

It could cost $253 million while abandoning the existing system of paying teachers based on their duration of service. The strategy could take about six years to implement, and Luna’s proposed budget this year has set aside $23 million to start.

“I’m convinced the candidate that will ultimately represent both parties will support these 20 recommendations,” Luna said.

After 2011, Luna became a lightning rod for pushing through Students Come First, a sweeping plan to require online classes, computers for high school students and other changes meant to modernize Idaho’s classrooms.

The Idaho Education Association teachers union fought the program, however, and voters in 2012 rejected the overhaul at the polls. In its wake, Otter set up the education task force.

Luna contends, however, that the failure of Students Come First didn’t factor into his decision to step down at the end of the year. Luna said the dispute over the 2011 laws ultimately became a “disruptive force” he believes will drive positive changes in Idaho’s education system.

“Those who have known me since 2002 know I’ve never avoided difficult things,” he said. “I’ve never avoided a fight.”

The race to succeed Luna is already growing crowded, regardless of Smyser’s plans.

Republicans already in the race are Grangeville teacher John Eynon and American Falls principal Randy Jensen. They’ll square off in the May 20 primary.

The lone Democratic candidate so far is Jana Jones, who was beaten by Luna in 2006.

One person who says he won’t run: Deputy schools chief Roger Quarles, hired by Luna last June to help fix a school data system that teachers have complained doesn’t work.

“I have no intention of running,” Quarles told The Associated Press in an email. “I am confident that there will be some excellent candidates announcing in the weeks ahead.”

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