Iowa Democrats say making education reforms voluntary 'gutted' initiative

But changes were negotiated long before being made public, GOP leaders say

March 28, 2014 | 11:36 am

Gutted.

That’s what Democrats said happened to Gov. Terry Branstad’s education reform initiative last week when House Republicans took the centerpiece of the plan and made it voluntary.

Under the proposal, districts could choose to raise starting teacher salaries from $28,000 to $32,000 and create new teacher designations of lead, mentor and master that come with higher salaries and more out-of-classroom responsibilities. Branstad’s plan had made that mandatory.

So was the governor despondent and the plan gutted?

“No, no, no, no,” Branstad said. “Frankly, I think (House Republicans) did a great job ... this is an important and significant step forward.”

Although the switch may have surprised Democrats, media and other observers, the details were negotiated between the governor and House Republicans long before they were made public Wednesday afternoon.

“We were in close contact (with the governor’s office) throughout the whole process,” said Rep. Ron Jorgensen, R-Sioux City, chairman of the House Education committee. “There were no surprises on either end.”

As it stands, districts that decide to opt-in get roughly $300 per student more in state dollars than districts that don’t. That’s money that could be increasingly important to districts because the Legislature has yet to pass an allowable growth bill, which is the traditional way the state sets aside per-student funding.

The opt-in move also puts Democrats on the side of arguing for mandatory pay increases and the new career ladder, as Rep. Mary Mascher of Iowa City did Thursday at a news conference.

“If you want the best and brightest teachers, you wouldn’t make it optional,” she said.

But a few days before, Mascher and other House Democrats were arguing that career paths weren’t a good idea because they took top performing teachers out of the classroom.

Mary Jane Cobb, executive director of the Iowa State Education Association, said the union is “sort of split” on opt-in.

She said the flexibility it affords districts is good, but she worries that the extra money that comes with opting in could dry up later.

“Mandatory versus non-mandatory is not the issue for us, it’s getting the right program that is important,” she said.

Still, Cobb said lawmakers need to decide if teacher minimums should be more than $28,000 or not, instead of making that optional.

Branstad thinks his reform proposal will prove so popular that it won’t be an issue because everyone will want to sign up, eventually.

“We think the money is the incentive; no school district is going to turn down that money,” Branstad said. “We’d prefer it to be for everybody, but I think with that type of financial incentive, every school district will want to get the additional money.”

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