Phase in reform to respect local school boards

March 28, 2014 | 10:29 am

By Quad-City Times

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Tactics, not goals, seem to be the biggest sticking point on the Iowa legislature’s upcoming education debate.

After three years of blue-ribbon panels, task forces and summits, Gov. Terry Branstad seems to have settled on a goal not far afield from Democrats and teachers: Pay classroom teachers well, train them well, and trust them.

The governor’s tactic: Put more state general fund money into school districts so that pay levels and training are uniform across Iowa; dump the allowable growth routine that allowed the legislature to effectively set local property tax rates.

The governor’s funding recommendation seems in line with Iowa’s education trend. Iowa public education is more centralized now. The common core curriculum standardized course offerings and reduced local school board influence on classroom work. Branstad’s Department of Education took online education innovation away from school districts. Then the Legislature capped the number of Iowa students who can seek online-only diplomas.

We’re torn. We appreciate the efficiencies and high standards inherent in Iowa’s more centralized public education. But we fear this trend might inhibit local innovation and reduce the impact of local school boards.

Senate Democrats want to stick with the allowable growth formula and have set an end-of-January goal to establish education funding before moving on other issues.

The Iowa State Education Association teacher union remains adamant: “Allowable growth is the most significant and equitable way to control and provide adequate funding for Iowa schools.”

In the middle sit our local school boards. Many members simply don’t trust this legislature or the next to maintain Branstad’s long-term funding promise.

In lean years, these board members experienced allowable growth rates of one and two percent that forced cuts in the face of rising costs. Districts also suffered a 10-percent across-the-board cut under former Gov. Chet Culver.

We are eager to continue Gov. Branstad’s strategic move to secure, long-term, multi-year budgeting. We’re eager to see schools less reliant on local property taxes, which vary tremendously from district to district.

But we’re empathetic to local school board members who already have begun their meticulous budgeting processes. And we believe school board members have good reasons to doubt state government’s ability — regardless of legislative intention — to stick with a long-term commitment to education funding.

Lawmakers needn’t hold each of Iowa’s 350 school boards hostage this year to complex legislative negotiations. Instead, consider an immediate allowable growth increase that keeps school boards’ responsible budgeting on track for the next school year. Then lawmakers can commence with funding reform effective in two years — time enough for local boards to plan.

Let Gov. Branstad, Senate Democrats and teacher union reps agree that classroom teachers deserve more pay and training. Compromise on the most efficient way to get there.

 

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