Iowa Legislators Whittle Down Governor’s Reform Plan

Published March 1, 2012

Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad’s education reform proposals have gotten a rocky start despite the months he spent touring the state to discuss them. State lawmakers have whittled down the Republican’s proposals to raise teacher quality and academic standards, expand charter schools, and require third graders to read before moving ahead.

“We have the values right in the governor’s proposal,” said Iowa Department of Education Director Jason Glass. “We can’t compromise to the point where the changes aren’t meaningful.”

Repeating Third Grade
The Republican-led House Education Committee voted to remove a requirement that teacher candidates earn at least a 3.0 grade point average and another that would make removing poor educators easier through arbitration. The committee also agreed to delay a proposal to require most students who cannot read to repeat third grade.

“There’s this feeling that if you hold back students it’s going to damage their psyches,” said Don Racheter, president of the Iowa-based Public Interest Institute. “It has permeated the culture so much that even some Republicans are buying into it.”

Glass says he is hopeful legislators will preserve the governor’s other literacy plans.  Under Branstad’s proposals, students would take reading tests each year and schools must notify their parents if they do poorly. Schools would be required to offer a host of reading resources, including summer school and tutoring opportunities.

‘Defending Adult Interests’
The majority Senate Democrats passed legislation stripping out measures to expand charter schools and to create a central vetting agency for prospective teachers, as well as Branstad’s proposal to end “last in, first out”policies in teacher layoffs.

“The Senate Democrats are out of step with President Obama when it comes to education policy,” Glass said. “They are very much focused on defending adult interests in the system.”

The Senate Education Committee also passed legislation prohibiting students from receiving most of their instruction online without permission from their local school district.

“The danger is we have opponents of school choice, people who believe school administrators know better than parents what kids need, who are trying to effectively prohibit full-time online education programs,” said Brian Kennedy, chairman of Iowans for Public School Options.

Online Education Wars
Kennedy praised the Department of Education under Glass’s leadership for working under current statute to get two different school districts to launch full-time online programs this coming fall. Open enrollment laws allow students to enroll in either program from anywhere across the state by March 1.

While the governor’s plan seeks maximum flexibility for digital instruction, Senate Democrats have petitioned state Attorney General Tom Miller (D) to provide a formal opinion on whether online public schools are even legal in Iowa.

At the same time, House Republicans amended Branstad’s proposal to require online programs to include in-person teaching or forfeit 70 percent of their per-pupil revenue.

Vouchers Politically Infeasible
Despite the substantial political challenges facing the governor’s education plan, some reformers say it does not go far enough, advocating for private school vouchers or education tax credits instead.

“The more you give choice to parents and students, the more competitive pressure you bring to bear on the educational process, the better it’s going to be,” said Racheter, who said Iowans need more facts about their education system’s performance shortcomings.

Glass shares Racheter’s view that vouchers are politically unfeasible in Iowa.

The Road Ahead
The state’s education chief recognizes that the current legislative session will not grant Branstad his entire reform package.

But he said failing to upgrade academic standards and tests, or to tie educator evaluations and school accountability more closely to student achievement, will cause him to withdraw Iowa’s request for waivers from federal No Child Left Behind provisions. That would keep Iowa schools subject to a federal requirement that all children rate “proficient” in math and reading by 2014.

Glass said he is determined to take on the education status quo over the long haul.

“This is just the beginning of a multi-year effort to put Iowa on par with some of the best systems in the world,” he said.

Image by Gage Skidmore.