Research & Commentary: Iowa Education Overhaul

Published November 1, 2011

Iowa’s governor and lieutenant governor have released a preliminary blueprint for “systemic” education reforms designed to make Iowa the nation’s top education state and enable Iowans to compete better internationally. Gov. Terry Branstad (R) will submit the proposal to the state legislature in 2012 after time for public and educator comment and negotiating with lawmakers.

The ideas include a tiered system granting teachers more pay for increased mentoring responsibilities and teaching high-need subjects, “value-added” teacher evaluations that include student test scores, ending social promotion for third graders, increasing teachers’ starting pay, expanding charter schools, and undoing “last in, first out” employment policies. Iowa spends 58 percent of its budget on education, and Branstad said his plan may require a spending increase.

Critics of the proposal say Iowa’s education system doesn’t need reforming, just more state money to replace cuts made in the past legislative session. Critics also question the proposal to hold back third graders, suggesting the selection is arbitrary. Some also question requiring more tests from high school students, saying standardized tests focus curriculum only on topics tested.

School reform proponents note the plan instills more competition in education by encouraging charter schools and online learning, which gives all schools incentives to improve. They also note “last in, first out” policies hurt education by basing teacher retention on time spent in the system instead of teaching effectiveness. Reformers also note the “tiered” teaching system in the plan involves promoting educators based on competence. Some worry, however, that increasing education funding will further bloat the state budget and waste taxpayer dollars, given that high education funding does not correlate with improvements in student performance.

The following documents offer more information on Branstad’s plan to overhaul Iowa education.

Education Blueprint Gets Chilly Reception in Weekend Iowa City Forum
Teachers in Iowa City told Gov. Terry Brandstad’s staff “there’s nothing wrong with us” and criticized the governor’s proposed education reforms, writes Source Media Group News of Eastern Iowa. Audience members at a town hall convened to discuss the proposal accused the governor of attempting to eliminate teacher unions and “bash” teachers. Some also criticized the proposal to hold back poorly reading third graders and administer end-of-course tests in core subjects for high school students.

Support for Iowa Schools Plan Elusive
Iowa lawmakers are largely waiting to learn the costs of Gov. Terry Branstad’s education overhaul before supporting or criticizing it, reports the Des Moines Register. The governor said he will announce a pricetag after building a consensus, since that process will change the proposal and thus the final bill. Advocates for increasing education funding say they are wary of a governor who led lawmakers in rejecting a school funding increase during the past session and promoted a voucher program for state preschool funds.

Advocates: Schools Overhaul May Cost Hundreds of Millions
The heads of Iowa’s largest teachers union and its school boards association say the governor’s proposed changes to education policy would likely stretch the school year and include salary increases that could cost the state hundreds of millions of dollars, the Des Moines Register reports. Gov. Terry Branstad’s concurrent proposal to reduce commercial property taxes could derail the project, the two said, since schools rely heavily on property taxes for income.

Give Bigger Piece of Pie to Schools, Branstad Says
Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad says he wants to trim other areas of the state budget, such as health care costs, to pay for his statewide education overhaul, reports the Des Moines Register. State Medicaid spending has doubled in the past 10 years, the governor told a town hall meeting, a trend that should be reversed so the state can prioritize education.

Branstad Education Plan Gets Qualified Support from School Administrators
The School Administrators of Iowa expressed qualified support for Gov. Terry Branstad’s education overhaul, saying they agree with the “general concepts” but want more details on money and professional development, says the Mason City Globe Gazette. The state’s largest teachers union has so far withheld comment on the plan.

Iowa Gets Education Reform Plan Worth Fighting For
The Gazette of Cedar Rapids endorses Gov. Terry Branstad’s education reform plan, citing its increases in state education funding, aiming at high international standards, allowances for local control and innovation, and encouragement of online learning. The paper praises the governor for avoiding traditional education controversies such as administrators versus unions and charter schools versus traditional public schools.

Monopolizing and Derailing the Education Freedom Train
The best education policy for Iowa would end the government monopoly by expanding school choice, writes Deborah Thornton for the Public Interest Institute in Mount Pleasant, Iowa. She notes monopolies have no reason to respond to the needs of those forced to receive their services, which in Iowa has created a mediocre school system. The government schools do a decent job of imparting basic education but are poor at cultivating higher-level thinking and skills, she writes.

Nothing in this Research & Commentary is intended to influence the passage of legislation, and it does not necessarily represent the views of The Heartland Institute. For further information on this and other topics, visit the School Reform News Web site at, The Heartland Institute’s Web site at, and PolicyBot, Heartland’s free online research database, at

If you have any questions about this issue or The Heartland Institute, contact Heartland education policy research fellow Joy Pullmann, at 312/377-4000 or [email protected].