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Wednesday, Sep. 17, 2014

Governor: Iowa's been 'complacent' on education

Friday, January 18, 2013

(Photo)
Iowa's 21st century students and teachers are stuck in a system designed for the 20th century, the Governor said this week. 'We cannot continue to be complacent.'
When Governor Terry Branstad rolled out his condition of the state message Tuesday, he boldly pledged to do for education in the next two years what he says he has done for the economy in the last two: rebuild, if not reinvent.

"Let's take the same serious approach we took to solving our budget problems and reshaping our economic development efforts to making our schools the best in the world," he challenged.

Storm Lake school officials have followed the formulation of Branstad's plan closely, and while they like the obvious priority attention the governor has bestowed, they worry that he has missed the most obvious element they need - consistent funding.

Branstad's plan would eliminate the ever-contentious "allowable growth" formula that now funds public schools, in favor of a 100 percent state aid program - meaning that school districts would no longer be able to trigger local property tax increases for general education needs.

For Storm Lake Superintendent of Schools Carl Turner, that wasn't the magic words he was hoping to hear.

"The one biggest thing I think the state could do to help its schools would be to have a consistent plan for allowable growth so that we could have some idea what kind of money we will have to work with each year.

"It's no different than your household budget," he explains. "If you try to build a budget for what you are going to spend before you figure out what you have coming in, it's probably going to run into problems."

Often, state officials fight back and forth through much of a session over school funding, and by the time they reach some kind of agreement on an allowable growth percentage, the time for determining teacher salaries and crafting a budget have come and gone.

Case in point: Last year, the Storm Lake district guessed that the allowable growth would be set at 3.5-4 percent for the coming year, and set teacher salaries accordingly, Turner said. When the state finally decided on a 2 percent figure, cuts had to be made elsewhere to make up the money. While districts would like to take on projects and classroom improvement efforts, many are operating closer to the danger line than Storm Lake, and may hesitate because they are not sure the funds will be there to complete their plans.

If schools come up short, they have to redirect money from some programs to pay for the mandated items. "Everyone loves to hear 'cuts' until it is their thing that gets cut," Supt. Turner says.

Headed into pay negotiations with teachers Jan. 23, Turner said that his district currently has no choice but to assume zero growth in funding, because the state has yet to indicate anything else.

Teachers are on Gov. Branstad's mind, too.

He says he plans to "elevate" the profession with a new compensation system that will provide five different career pathways. He didn't, on this occasion, divulge details about those routes.

Also, a "Teach Iowa Initiative" will recruit more of the best students to become public school teachers. Awards would be given to students preparing got careers in high-need areas - like math and science. Beginning teacher minimum wage will rise 25 percent from $28,000 to $35,000, he said.

Finally, he plans some kind of "seal" that successful high school students could earn to show that they are college-ready or prepared for a career, he says.

The local district isn't quibbling.

"Any time government is focusing on teachers, it has to be a good thing," Turner says. "We're happy to hear this."

However, while Branstad said his education package can be funded from the newly-achieved budget surplus to the tune of $160 million this year, those like Turner fret that promises from higher government have been heard before.

What happens if all the costly improvements like higher teacher pay are put in place, but a year from now, a budget downturn takes away the money to fund it, or future leaders decide that funding the Branstad initiatives should no longer be the priority.

The districts could be left to pay the costs themselves, Turner noted, and if the governor has his way, might no longer have the ability to increase their levy to meet those unfunded mandate costs.

Doing nothing to relieve his nerves was a statement by Branstad that until there is a resolution on what the state is willing to do to reform education, not one minute should be spent on discussing additional resources for the existing education system.

The governor admitted that efforts so far to reform education haven't done the job.

A December study proved that Iowa students' grasp of vocabulary is slipping alarmingly.

Iowa eighth graders led the nation in math in 1992, but now rank 25th, and just 8 percent of them score at advanced levels in math on a national test. Among the 2012 Iowa high school graduates who went on to community college, over 36 percent had to be enrolled there in remedial classes.

According to the governor, it's not because Iowa students are less intelligent - academic scores in the state are simply remaining stagnant year after year while other states are improving in their schools.

The governor said he doesn't blame teachers - noting that his daughter is one. They are stuck in a 20th century education system when the wold has moved on to the 21st, Branstad opines.

In Storm Lake, Turner isn't buying that the state knows best when it comes to operating a classroom. Again, a lack of a consistent state funding mechanism is a key element holding back improvements, he feels - though Storm Lake has undertaken several initiatives on its own to improve standardized test scoring, with some success.

Branstad said a key is making teachers leaders in their schools, alongside the principals. Relying on teacher leadership is a hallmark of the most successful schools around the world, the governor says.

While the state implemented a "career ladder' in 2001 because Iowa teachers were leaving for better opportunities elsewhere, Branstad admitted that it was never really funded.

Other education-related ideas tossed out by the governor:

* A pilot program to expand the traditional one semester student teaching requirement into a year-long apprenticeship in partner schools.

* Beginning next year, an optional, state-funded test for high school students to determine their readiness for college or workforce.

Branstad hailed some elementary students sitting in the balcony for the speech occasion, and said that once schools are improved, more businesses will move to Iowa because they can expect a well-trained workforce, and that in turn will create more better-paying job opportunities for young people growing up in the state.

Turner allowed that the plans in the condition of the state message may come out looking different once the political process of the legislative session has its way with them.

Many of the ideas are "positive signs," especially efforts to attract young people to a teaching career, he reflects, but schools need to hear more details to ensure that they are "common sense."

Still, limiting local taxation ability and some other elements of the plan are clearly troubling.

"Back in the olden days, there was a concept known as 'local control.' Then came all kinds of mandates, like the No Child Left Behind effort from the federal level. In education we've had more and more people from the outside telling you what you need to do in your community," he said. "That's okay - if they provide the funding to do it."



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