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SL school leaders aren't 'scared' by state mandate bill

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Critics say state-ordered curriculum plan is 'the square root of ridiculous'

Storm Lake education leaders have mixed feelings about the debate between state and local control of their curriculum, but Storm Lake Superintendent Paul Tedesco suggests it may be a blessing in disguise.

A bill that would require school districts to follow a state-mandated curriculum passed the Senate after nearly four hours of debate Tuesday night.

"You could get all scared and upset about it, but we are already teaching all of these things," Tedesco said. "There is a lot of concern out there, but if this gives us more information about how we are serving our children, that doesn't seem like a bad thing."

The measure represents a major turnaround from the long-held state policy that allows local school boards to control the curriculum taught in their classrooms.

The bill, which passed 36-14, heads to the House.

"Local control is nice to have," Tedesco reflects. "But at this time, having standards to meet could be benefitial."

We are becoming more of a "global society" every year, he suggests, and the way to stay competitive in the nation and world is to have tougher standards in the classroom - whether those standards are handed down by a local school board or a state department of education.

The measure requires public school districts and state accredited nonpublic schools to adopt a core curriculum for math, science and literacy by 2012 for ninth through 12th grade. Schools must also adopt curriculum for social studies and other subjects by the 2014-2015 school year for kindergarten through eighth grades.

Tedesco doesn't think that the drive for improvement should stop with the core classes.

"We could get tougher beyond the core. To me, there are obvious places that we have had no national standards at all, such as vocational classes," the Storm Lake Superintendent said.

Still, he wonders how a statewide curriculum could work.

"We offer the same government class that every school offers, but the real question is - how rigorous is that class going to be? And that depends not only on the curriculum but very much on the teacher you have for that class and the class itself. That's where every school is going to be different."

The bill will still allow local districts the opportunity to choose their own textbooks. "They haven't taken that away - at least not yet," Tedesco said.

That could change as well, he predicts - noting that a couple of states have already taken the choice of texts out of local schools' hands.

In rural Iowa, that would be problematic.

When Storm Lake recently updated to a new series of math texts through all the grade levels, the costs exceeded $200,000 - the kind of blow that would break many smaller school budgets if new books were suddenly mandated for several classes.

Tedesco feels the state is doing a good job of supporting the schools, but with enrollment dropping at nearly 80 percent of all the schools in the state, difficult decisions await.

"They need to give us as much freedom as possible to determine what we do locally, but if the state is going to be asked to do more to support us financially, it may also have more of a say in what we do," the superintendent said.

One form that could take is encouragement for school sharing, if not complete consolidation.

Even in the biggest district in the area by far, the eventual need for sharing has not escaped officials' attention. For smaller local districts, it is quickly becoming almost a necessity.

"Everybody wants to keep their schools where they are," Tedesco said. "Elementary and middle schools can be run on a relatively small amount of money, but the high schools are different - to offer all of the programs that are mandated or desired, it takes big money."

Storm Lake is open to discussions with any area district interested in sharing, Tedesco said.

"We have talked with surrounding schools even before I came here. I can tell you that we have talked to Albert City-Truesdale, Newell-Fonda, Schaller-Crestland, and we would keep on talking," he said.

"We could get some value out of a sharing program ourselves. While it might be a way to offer more classes and programs for a smaller district that would share with us, we are aware that there may come a day when we need some help from them in order to keep our enrollment figures up."

Meanwhile, debate on a statewide mandated curriculum continues to enscalate.

"It's an important piece of what it takes to improve instruction," said Margaret Buckton, lobbyist for the Iowa Association of School Boards who pushed for the measure. "There will still be district choices about what textbooks to offer. It's not like we all have to be on page seven in the textbook on Tuesday."

Sen. Paul McKinley, Chariton, said the bill is a radical departure from Iowa's policy of local control.

"It takes away a very important part of Iowa's educational system that has served us quite well," he said. "It replaces it with a state mandate that will result in a further decline in student achievement."

Sen. Dave Mulder, R-Sioux Center, disagrees with McKinley. The retired college professor said Iowa - the last state without statewide standards - needs a change because the state is falling in its ranking of student achievement.

Michael Connolly, D-Dubuque, took issue with a Republican amendment that listed mathematical terms that should be included in curriculum requirements. He called the mandate the "square root of ridiculous."

Last year, lawmakers approved voluntary state standards in core subjects including English, math and science. But lobbyists for the Iowa Department of Education, Iowa Association of School Boards and The Iowa State Education Association, a teacher's union, pushed for more changes and to make a curriculum mandate.

If passed into law, districts would be required to report their progress on meeting the mandates to the Legislature by Nov. 14.

A defeated amendment would have exempted nonpublic schools, including private Christian schools. That means that under the Senate bill, schools like St. Mary's and Concordia would be bound by the same mandates as the public schools on curriculum.

The bill carries an estimated annual cost to the Department of Education of about $2.6 million from 2009 through 2015 to hire staff and implement the curriculum.

Gov. Chet Culver said he favors the bill.

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