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Idaho Students Stage Walkout to Oppose Teacher Layoffs, Collective Bargaining Curbs

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Hundreds of high school students in Idaho have walked out of classes to protest a plan to lay off public school teachers and curtail their collective bargaining rights. We speak to student activist Jonny Saunders of Timberline High School in Boise. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to move now from Indiana — well, you’re in Illinois, but usually in Indiana — to Idaho, where hundreds of high school students walked out of classes to protest a plan to lay off public school teachers and curtail their rights to collective bargaining. One of the student leaders behind the walkout was Jonny Saunders, a 17-year-old debate student at Timberline High School in Boise. Jonny has become an internet sensation after a video was posted online of him speaking at a rally in Boise last month.

JONNY SAUNDERS: I know we have a tough time parting with our money to pay for teachers, and I know the dirty word here in this state is “taxes.” I know we can’t afford to pay for our children’s future. I understand that. We’re all a too little caught up in buying another car to raise our taxes. I understand that. No, no, I get it.

RALLY AUDIENCE MEMBER: Yeah. Let’s not send our taxes out of state.

JONNY SAUNDERS: Yeah, let’s send them somewhere else. But the thing is that we need to pay for a society that we live in. Teaching is not just another job in this society; it’s the way our future is shaped, and it’s the way the next generation is raised.

AMY GOODMAN: That was 17-year-old high school student Jonny Saunders from Boise, Idaho, joining us now by Democracy Now! video stream. Why did you lead this walkout, Jonny?

JONNY SAUNDERS: Just a clarification: I didn’t necessarily lead the walkout. The project was a different student; it was Tyler Honsinger of Boise High, who started it. I just extended the branch over to my high school, at Timberline High. But the answer to why we started or why we necessarily had a walkout is to show that students, too, indeed oppose this bill and that there’s no real student that I’ve met that supports it, except for the students of businessmen or the students of parents that necessarily support it because it benefits their industry. The general attitude of students today is that we’re kind of caught in the crosshairs, so to speak, that we are being blamed by politicking senators that we are the ones that are being abused by our teachers or something like that. And we just wanted to show that it was our free will, and we chose to oppose the bill — it wasn’t the evil teachers that were brainwashing us — that we had read the bill, and we oppose what it said.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the education system? You talked about — you spoke against merit pay, which is a very — there’s a very big movement for this all over the country — saying the plan would ultimately lead to teachers only teaching to test. Why?

JONNY SAUNDERS: Well, the system of merit pay, it’s not a flawed system. I understand that people respond to incentives. But the incentive in merit pay is the incorrect one. When you have standardized testing, especially math tests, in particular, and tests like that that are the only metric of how student progress is measured, the teacher can give up on their creative curriculum. Teaching is — should be — at least, it comes down to the philosophy of what you think education should be, whether it should be kids memorizing facts or whether it should be a teacher that teaches their kids to function in the real world. And what merit pay does is it incentivizes teachers to, quote, “drill and kill” the test answers, or sometimes they will — it literally gives them an incentive just to increase test scores, and so they can — I’m not claiming any teacher of being dishonest, but it does incentivize cheating. It incentivizes not going off curriculum, because the second you step off curriculum, that’s another thousand dollars you lose off your paycheck. If you’re not drilling and making kids memorize exactly what’s on the curriculum, then you’ll end up losing money. And that’s a very powerful motivator, as the people who passed the bill know. It’s just that the political reality of what merit pay does is very different than the lofty rhetoric of rewarding teachers for being good teachers. Yeah, and it just turns into a negative system that turns into rote memorization every time.

AMY GOODMAN: Jonny Saunders, I want to thank you for being with us — we have come to the end of our show — student activist at Timberline High School in Boise, Idaho. As we continue to cover the protests around this country, from the Midwest to the Middle East to North Africa, stay with us in these days. You can go to our website for updates at

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