DES MOINES — The debate over education reform promises to intensify as a reform package approved Wednesday by the Republican-controlled Iowa House hits the doorstep of the Democrat-controlled Senate.
At the same time, a California-based nonprofit group is hitting the airwaves with pro-reform commercials statewide.
The Iowa House passed a sweeping education reform package on a largely party-line vote that requires more student testing, calls for the expansion of charters schools and keeps a controversial third-grade retention program in place.
The House also rejected key components in Gov. Terry Branstad’s reform recommendations by eliminating a requirement that prospective teachers have and maintain a 3.0 GPA and placing new restrictions on who can take online classes.
“This online learning is a strange new animal, but we have some language to tame that animal,” Rep. Royd Chambers, R-Sheldon, told his colleagues shortly before the vote. Chambers is a high school teacher and floor managed the House bill. “This bill is a blow to the status quo, which is a positive thing.”
The bill now goes to the Senate, which has its own version of education reform but could choose to pick up the House bill.
“Most of the folks I’ve talked to in the education community are pretty happy with the work that we’ve done,” said Sen. Herman Quirmbach, D-Ames. “We are certainly open to considering any ideas from the House that really are focused on the welfare of the kids. That’s my focus.”
Lawmakers began debate Tuesday afternoon, recessed shortly before midnight and returned to the Statehouse to debate at 8 a.m. Wednesday. Seven Republicans joined all the Democrats in voting against the bill when the final tally was taken shortly after 11 a.m.
The “strange animal” Chambers described inserted itself into the center of the debate over education reform this year when two Iowa school districts announced plans to open online academies this fall.
Clayton Ridge Community School District and CAM Community School District contracted with private online education providers under current state law. Students from across the state could enroll in the academies and have their lessons delivered over the Internet. The private companies receive the students’ state aid as payment, less an administrative fee of 3 percent or 3.5 percent that goes to the host district.
The governor’s reform plan kept the law as is, but lawmakers in both the House and Senate moved to add restrictions to the law.
“They’ve opened a door to what could become a range war over students, with districts poaching students from other districts and students open-enrolling in a district that they’d never physically attend only to be plugged into an online system that I’m not convinced has adequate oversight,” Quirmbach said.
The language in the current Senate draft limits most students to getting a maximum of 50 percent of their curriculum delivered online.
The bill passed by the House limits the number of school children who can enroll in fully online courses to 900 students statewide and restricts outward open enrollment from any single district to 1 percent of its total enrollment. It also requires the Iowa Department of Education to develop a statewide online education program.
Rep. Jeremy Taylor, R-Sioux City, an English teacher who has been one of the most vocal critics of 100 percent online learning, called the House version a “good-faith compromise.”
“There are some things we are never going to agree on,” Chambers said about Democrats and the split vote. “We’re never going to agree on charter schools. We’re never going to agree on the religious exemption. That’s OK.”
Branstad spokesman Tim Albrecht said the governor’s education reform package would take years to accomplish, and some results won’t be seen for a decade.
“Our sweeping reforms launch this year, and in subsequent years, the governor intends to build upon this proposal, including a teacher leadership and compensation package that was postponed this year in order to provide further study of the program,” Albrecht said. “The governor is pleased that reform is moving forward, and will work with both chambers and both parties to continue progress.”
Some of the governor’s ideas will get a boost from a statewide television and radio campaign launched Wednesday by the group StudentsFirst.
The organization, founded by former D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee, advocates for many of the same reforms Branstad has called for in his proposal, including ending seniority as a leading factor in layoff decisions and getting rid of step-and-lane salary scales.
Rhee met with lawmakers in Des Moines this week, including key members of the House leadership. Rep. Kevin Koester, R-Ankeny, filed, but ultimately withdrew, an amendment to the education bill Tuesday that lawmakers called the “StudentsFirst” amendment because it contained several of the group’s policy points. Koester said he withdrew the amendment because it hadn’t been vetted in committee.
Rep. Sharon Steckman, D-Mason City, ranking Democrat on the House education committee, said the group “shares a similar philosophy” with the governor and she saw the launch of the campaign as “calculated” to raise support for Branstad’s agenda.
Albrecht wrote in an email response that there was no coordination between StudentsFirst and the governor’s office for the ad campaign.
“StudentsFirst is an independent organization that makes their own decisions on what they are going to do, but we are extremely pleased that they have chosen to promote education reform in this manner,” Albrecht wrote. “We believe that the more Iowans learn about Gov. Branstad and Lt. Gov. Reynolds’ education reform plan, the more support there will be for moving education reform this session.”