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No Poison Apple? Terry Branstad’s Education Proposal Aims to Be Palatable to Varied Legislators and Interests. They’re Open to Reform but Leery. PDF Print E-mail
Commentary/Politics - Iowa Politics
Written by Jeff Ignatius   
Thursday, 19 January 2012 06:42

Meaningful education reform is always fraught with political peril. By definition, it challenges the status quo. There are also disparate vested interests – from teacher unions to parents to school administrators, districts, and boards. Depending on the approach, reform can be onerous on schools, teachers, or taxpayers (or all three). And, of course, children and their futures are at stake, and by extension so is the long-term health of the state itself.

So education reform is inherently difficult. Consensus education-reform is even more challenging, but that hasn’t stopped the administration of Iowa Governor Terry Branstad from trying. Even with Democrats controlling the state Senate, the Republican governor is trying to get his 26-element education-reform package through the legislature this year.

The final proposal was unveiled January 6, and the draft legislation followed on January 11. It has three thrusts: “great teachers and leaders,” “high expectations and fair measures,” and “innovation.” In broad terms, the proposal aims to: improve the quality of classroom teachers (increasing selectivity, allowing nontraditional pathways into the teaching profession, and giving school districts more flexibility in personnel decisions); evaluate student progress more consistently and add new requirements – such as third-grade reading proficiency and end-of-course exams for high-school students; and remove barriers to new educational approaches. (See sidebar.)

Jason E. Glass, the director of the Iowa Department of Education, told the River Cities’ Reader last week that some education-reform efforts add too many requirements without the funding to meet them. Others increase funding without accountability. “With this proposal, we’re trying to get to the right balance of pressures and supports,” he said.

The proposal has a first-year price tag of $25 million, $17 million of which would be new money coming from the state’s general fund. (The remainder would be redirected existing education funding.) That’s a minor increase compared to the Fiscal Year 2012 K-12 state funding level of almost $2.8 billion (according to the Iowa Policy Project), but Glass said education funding would likely increase in the coming years – although that’s not discussed in Branstad’s final proposal. “My expectation would be that this $25 million ... would be a starting point, and I would expect to see us build on that expenditure over the next several years,” he said.

Download Embed Embed this video on your site Interview with Iowa Department of Education Director Jason E. Glass (34 minutes)

He conceded that several elements of Branstad’s plan could result in increased costs at the local level that might not be fully offset by the proposal’s increased state funding for school districts. He cited three components: the kindergarten-through-third-grade literacy program (funded at $10 million in Branstad’s proposal), the shift to annual teacher and administrator evaluations (from the current every-three-years model), and the optional School Administration Management program (which frees up principals to focus on instruction rather than building management).

But he also said several elements of the plan could reduce costs to districts, such as the state paying for all 11th-graders to take college-entrance exams.

Glass said that any reform effort should be judged in a decade on a number of factors: whether Iowa’s educational system is again held in global high regard, whether Iowa students are getting into top colleges and top jobs, and whether the state’s educational system brings jobs and businesses to the state. On a quantitative level, he said, Iowa ninth-graders should score as well on the Programme for International Student Assessment test as students in the nation’s and the world’s top school systems – Massachusetts, Canada, Singapore, South Korea, Finland. That test is one component of the governor’s proposal.

The ultimate goal is to reverse a 20-year trend. As a document prepared for last year’s Iowa Education Summit noted, on the National Assessment of Education Progress tests for reading (in fourth grade) and math (in eighth grade), “Iowa has moved from being a national leader to the national average, partly due to declining results but largely because of gains made in other states. ... Iowa has remained stagnant while much of the nation is moving ahead.” The state was in the bottom three in the country on the change in its test scores in both areas from 2003 to 2009.

Poison Pills and Radioactivity

A “blueprint” for Branstad’s plan was released in October and emphasized that it was “not a list of options to be cherry-picked based on special interests, ideology, political affiliation, or whether one is within or outside of the education profession. ... Lasting and meaningful change requires this sort of commitment and transformation.”

That suggests an all-or-nothing rigidity, and Glass called the governor’s plan “bold and sweeping.” Yet he also stressed that Branstad was open to compromise and alternative strategies to accomplish his education-reform goals.

“We are committed to the values that are behind every part of this ... ,” he said. “We are going to be very rigid and stand behind the values that are behind this, but we are open and flexible on the specific strategies and how we get there. ... It needs to go through this democratic legislative process. ... If we can get the majority of these elements through, I think that would be a short-term success.”

Glass said the plan was crafted to be palatable to Democrats and Republicans. “Our proposal is an attempt to get at a bipartisan consensus on a number of contentious issues,” he said. “We tried to pitch a proposal that would be received with optimism and that wouldn’t contain any poison pills for either ... chamber or either party. It’s an attempt to put together a proposal that we can stand behind for the long term for both chambers and regardless of what administration is in charge. … This is not about trying to get a short-term political victory.”

He added that he’s encouraged so far by the leadership in both chambers and both parties. “I’m very optimistic that we’ll get an education-reform bill passed in Iowa this session,” he said. “I think the governor has worked very hard to try to keep the door open to both chambers and both parties ... . They also are trying very hard not to make this discussion radioactive to the other side.”

The Branstad administration has certainly been inclusive in its process. “We have been at the table in several meetings,” said Chris Bern, president of the Iowa State Education Association (ISEA). “We’re relatively happy with the amount of input we’ve had into this. ... I believe the governor and his staff and the Department of Education and the staff there have been listening.”

Yet after the release of the governor’s final plan (but prior to the legislation being made public), Bern sounded lukewarm: “Overall, we like that the governor is making education a priority in the state. But there’s still a lot of missing detail in what they’ve put out, and until we see the detail, it’s hard to take a position on things.”

Bern’s reaction was echoed by others. “I think that we share a lot of the same goals,” said Senator Herman Quirmbach, chair of the Senate Education Committee and a Democrat from Ames. “I think that we have some common ground in some of the proposals that have been made.” As for Glass’ promise of trying to build a two-party consensus, Quirmbach sounded warily optimistic. “I’m going to give him the benefit of a doubt until I have reason to doubt. ... I want to keep the focus on this on the kids. ... I’m hopeful that we’ll do something serious this year.”

Download Embed Embed this video on your site Interview with Iowa Senate Education Committee Chair Herman Quirmbach (17 minutes)

Quirmbach said his goal is to get education reform through the Senate Education Committee by the February 24 “funnel” deadline. Adjournment of the legislature is scheduled for April 17.

There were several changes to the governor’s proposal between the October blueprint and the January version. Teacher compensation was punted to a proposed legislative task force – both because the governor’s proposal was unpopular and because it was potentially expensive.

“We felt that the state system wasn’t ready to engage in that conversation,” Glass said. “Very skeptical reactions and low level of understanding around what we were trying to accomplish with it. We have work to do to help people understand what our approach was. ... This is not an idea that’s taken hold in Iowa yet. So we have to work to do to build understanding ... .”

Funding was also a factor. “We want to take that issue on at the top of a new budget cycle,” Glass said. “Right now we’re halfway through a two-year budget cycle in Iowa, so most of the resources have already been allocated for next [fiscal] year. When you talk about educator compensation, that’s the largest expenditure in education, so we want to engage in that discussion at a time when we have all the chips on the table in terms of the resources that are available.”

He added that Iowa’s relatively strong economy and state-budget situation present an opportunity to “direct ... additional resources into education” in the coming years. The state has low unemployment compared to many states, it’s likely to run a budget surplus this fiscal year, and its revenues have been coming in above forecasts in the current fiscal year.

Yet even with the teacher-compensation discussion removed from the reform proposal and other changes to the blueprint, the path to serious reform appears challenging.