Branstad prepares for new round of education reform

Iowa governor says last year 'step in right direction'

Mike Wiser
Published: August 5 2012 | 6:23 am - Updated: 31 March 2014 | 10:39 pm in
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The Monday after the 84th General Assembly adjourned, Gov. Terry Branstad stood behind his speaker’s podium and assessed the success of his 2012 education reform package.

Hardly any of his major initiatives — online learning, teacher evaluation, third-grade retention for poor readers — went through unscathed. Some were thrown overboard outright by both Republicans and Democrats.

The governor said it was a “watered-down” version of what he hoped for but called it a “step in the right direction.”

Now, Branstad is gearing up for his next reform package — one that focuses on teacher pay and professionalism.

He and Iowa Department of Education Director Jason Glass have held up the National Institute for Excellence in Teaching’s system called the Teacher Advancement Program, or TAP, as a model worth exploring.

A TAP-like proposal originally was part of the 2012 plan, setting up four classes of teachers with four sets of responsibilities and pay scales. Branstad pulled that component off the table before it got to the Legislature.

Plans for TAP

The system would radically change the way teachers are paid and promoted in public school districts throughout the state because compensation typically is decided on the local level through labor contracts.

Although the governor hasn’t released specifics of his 2013 education initiative, some of his toughest critics already have chimed in with their thoughts.

“Governor Branstad should remember a key principle from his days as president of a medical college: first, do no harm,” Sen. Herman Quirmbach, D-Ames, said.

Quirmbach is concerned that the governor may target class-size reduction money to pay for the state’s teacher leadership programs.

Indeed, Marc Tucker, president of the National Center on Education and the Economy, was one of the featured speakers at Friday’s state-sponsored education forum at Drake University in Des Moines.

“Of all the things you can do, one that is the most expensive, but least effective, is lower class size,” Tucker told the crowd of 700 teachers, administrators and education policy leaders gathered at the forum. “One of the best you can do is invest in larger class sizes and better teachers.”

The audience was silent.

“While there are many suggestions on how to improve our schools, almost everyone agrees that stuffing more students into each classroom is more likely to harm, rather than improve, student achievement,” said Quirmbach, who headed the Senate Education Committee this year. “Crowded classrooms make it harder for teachers to give students the one-on-one attention they need. Crowded classrooms are less likely to attract and retain the best teachers.”

Politics of education

There’s also a political component. Not just from the traditional Republican versus Democrat, but also from state versus local control.

Nadene Davidson, an assistant professor of human relations at the University of Northern Iowa’s College of Education, said this is particularly important in Iowa, which has a strong tradition of local control.

“When they proposed the four columns of teacher leadership last year, that made me a little nervous,” she said. “It was very top-down.”

Tammy Wawro, new president of the Iowa State Education Association, said there needs to be an opportunity for local buy-in for any system to be successful.

“We remain hopeful as always that the governor and Legislature will look to educators who are in the classroom every day when important decisions about public education are being made,” she said.

Rep. Cindy Winckler, a Davenport Democrat and a member of the House Education Committee, said Branstad and Glass hurt themselves this past session by “deciding what they wanted to do, then expecting it to be done. There was no collaboration.”

Branstad will not respond to questions on what, if anything, he intends to do differently to move his newest reform legislation through the Legislature until later, spokeswoman Jenae Jenison said.

But this summer, he and Glass took aim at Senate Democrats and blamed the lawmakers for the state not being able to get a full waiver from federal testing standards under No Child Left Behind. The state eventually obtained a one-year waiver.

“The finger-pointing did not help,” Quirmbach said.

Chris Larimer, a political science professor at the University of Northern Iowa, thinks it behooves the governor to swing for the fences, politically speaking.

“It makes sense to shoot for something big,” he said. “Both parties want to see education reform, so it makes sense to shoot big and see where you end.”

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