Education reform picture in Iowa remains unclear

The Gazette Opinion Staff
Published: February 27 2013 | 12:52 pm - Updated: 28 March 2014 | 12:02 pm in
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By Sioux City Journal

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With six weeks of this year’s legislative session in the books, where do state lawmakers stand on education reform?

Because the picture is anything but clear to us, we give them an overall grade of “C.”

The House gets a little higher grade because it passed Gov. Terry Branstad’s reform plan on Wednesday, although it’s unclear to us why the House made key components of the plan — a new level of base pay for teachers and new career ladders for teachers (lead, mentor and master teachers) — voluntary.

If the House believes these pieces of Branstad’s blueprint are important, valuable tools in the overall strategy for reform of public schools in our state (as we do), they should be mandatory (as all components of the plan should be). Making base pay and new career ladders voluntary waters down the plan, in our view.

Focus now shifts to the Senate, where the education reform picture gets fuzzier. It’s unclear to us whether the Senate will work from what the House passed or fashion its own bill. The fact the Branstad reform plan passed along party lines in the Republican-controlled House gives us pause about its chances in the Democrat-controlled Senate.

Another ingredient mixed into the education pot is allowable growth, which is important to local school districts in completing budgets for next year. Branstad said he wanted the Legislature to finish education reform before the end of February before moving on to allowable growth. Well, the end of February is this week.

The House included a provision about allowable growth — the annual per-student increase in state dollars available to school districts — within the education reform package it passed. The Senate hasn’t taken action on education reform, but it did on allowable growth.

The problem is the House and Senate have dramatically different positions on allowable growth. The House proposes 2 percent for the next two years; the Senate, 4 percent.

So where are we on all of this? Good question.

To review: An education reform plan passed along party lines with voluntary components in the GOP-controlled House, but no reform package has been advanced by the Democrat-controlled Senate. And the Senate wants double what the House wants for allowable growth, so no decision there for local school districts.

We urge the Senate to join the House in passing Branstad’s education reform plan, although we prefer all components of the plan be mandatory. Also, if debate about education reform is going to continue for a while, lawmakers should expedite a decision on allowable growth for the sake of local school districts. Holding local school systems hostage to education reform for another two months isn’t in anyone’s interests.

We remain hopeful this Legislature won’t settle for more tinkering at the edges and substantive education reform will happen. Anything less, in our view, will be a failure.

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