Educators warn lack of money will kill school reform in Iowa

Gov. Terry Branstad 'hopeful' $187 million, multi-year reform will pass

Rod Boshart
Published: February 4 2013 | 4:00 pm - Updated: 28 March 2014 | 10:58 am in
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Representatives of K-12 education groups told lawmakers Monday that they are generally supportive of proposed reforms with some modifications and local flexibility, but they warned that needed resources must closely follow policy changes in a timely manner or the effort will stall similar to what happened in 2001.

“That’s really a killer of reform,” Tom Narak, director of government relations for the School Administrators of Iowa told members of the Senate Education Committee. “We have to make sure that doesn’t happen this time.”

Narak noted that career ladders for teachers and other proposed changes being considered for K-12 schools this legislative session were put in the Iowa code years ago but were never adequately funded, while other states and countries successfully moved ahead with serious systematic improvements by recognizing the need for resources to implement their reforms. He also urged collaborative work between state-level officials and local administrators, teachers, parents, school boards and others that recognizes the need for flexibility rather than trying to apply proposed reforms for all districts.

“A one-size-fits all approach to strategy may not work for all districts,” said Jeff Anderson of Boone president-elect of the Iowa Association of School Boards. “And, while there aspects of the career ladder proposal that make sense, such as providing teachers with more opportunities to receive meaningful feedback and coaching, it would represent placing a very sizeable bet on a strategy that would pull a significant number of our best teachers out of the classroom for varying degrees of time -- and that is a concern , especially if we are unable to backfill those lost classroom positions due to  inadequate funding. If we have standards in place and assessments to measure them, we can hold the system accountable.”

Narak applauded action by the Iowa Senate last week to set an “allowable growth” increase of 4 percent for fiscal 2014 and urged the House, Senate and Gov. Terry Branstad agree to approve that and a similar 4 percent increase for fiscal 2015 soon to prevent school funding from becoming “a political football” at a time when schools need regular and consistent funding.

Cedar Rapids school superintendent Dave Benson, representing the Urban Education Network, said Iowa funding for elementary and secondary schools is $970 per pupil below the national average and would need a one-time boost of 16 percent just to get to that level. He noted there is nothing in the proposed education reforms that will enable schools to create savings or offset costs.

“It has been concerning over the past year to hear statements that support for allowable growth is ‘throwing money at the problem’ or, even more incredibly, claims  that allowable growth is somehow responsible for whatever the perceived shortcomings of our education system may be,” Anderson said. “And, while we continue to hear statements about the importance of having a multi-year budgeting process at the state level, Iowa’s schools are facing looming statutory deadlines for our budget approval process and entering into negotiations on collective bargaining  agreements for the coming year with absolutely no idea what level of funding we will have to work with.

“We hear a lot of talk about trying to incentivize the ‘best and the brightest’ to go into education, but if we don’t have a decision on allowable growth soon, the positions of a lot of our newest teachers  will be in jeopardy, and that it demoralizing  and counterproductive,” he added.

Last week, House Majority Leader Linda Upmeyer, R-Garner, mapped out a schedule for Branstad’s education reform proposal, saying a House subcommittee would move it forward this week, the House Education would take action on it next week, and the full Iowa House would debate it the week after that.

During his weekly news conference Monday, Branstad told reporters he was confident his $187 million, multi-year education reform proposal could advance quickly through the legislative process.

“I’m very hopeful that this can be resolved before the end of the month of March, which would be very timely for schools and much earlier than it’s sometimes resolved,” the governor said.

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