DES MOINES - Gov. Terry Branstad hadn't even begun taking questions in the Capitol View Elementary School Library on Friday when Cindy Winckler began shaking her head.
Winckler, a retired Davenport teacher turned state representative, clutched a piece of paper marked "Education Department 2013 Budget Proposal" that she said she pulled from the state Legislative Services Agency website that morning. The printout had a chart that listed cutting funding for the state's preschool program by half as an "option."
So she stood there, fuming, as Branstad
went over the details of his $25 million education reform proposal.
As soon as the governor was done, Winckler told the assembled members of the media that the governor shouldn't even be talking about education reform if he's still thinking about cutting funding to preschools.
Branstad had already left the building, but the accusation seemed to catch Department of Education director Jason Glass and Linda Fandel, the governor's special assistant for education, completely by surprise.
"That's not true," Fandel said aloud. "We have no plans to reduce the level of funding for preschool. I don't even know what that document is."
A couple of hours later, Branstad spokesman Tim Albrecht sent out a statement from the governor's office.
"Cindy Winckler's assertion regarding preschool is completely, wholly and flat-out untrue. This poisonous language attempting to sabotage our
education reform efforts is unfortunate, and she should know better," Albrecht wrote. "Iowa schoolchildren deserve better than what amounts to the
equivalent of playground sneering, and it's beneath the office she holds."
It was an acrimonious debut for a reform package the governor said he wants broad, bipartisan support for when it goes to the Iowa Legislature this session.
The plan is part Kentucky, a pinch of California, a couple scoops of Florida, mixed together and sprinkled with a bit of Midwestern flavor so it comes out Iowa.
"I don't think there's anything really new here," said Nicholas Pace, an associate professor of educational leadership at the University of Northern Iowa.
"It's borrowing from a lot of other places where certain programs have been tried before," Pace said. "It borrows a lot from Florida. Some people might think that's good, some might think that's not so good."
Indeed, the single most expensive part of the program revealed Friday is a $10 million statewide literacy program aimed at getting all school children to read at grade-level by third grade.
Students who can't reach the basic literacy requirements don't move on to fourth grade at the end of the year. A similar program has been in place in Florida since 2001.
"There was a lot of talk about that. It was certainly the most controversial part," said Mark Lofgren, R-Muscatine, who attended closed-door meeting with lawmakers and state education officials Friday after Branstad's news conference.
Susie Lee, Florida Department of Education Director of K-12 Test Administration, said 29 percent of Florida's third-graders were held back when the program began in 2001. By 2011, only 16 percent were held back.
Likewise, Lee said, 57 percent of third-graders were reading at grade level in 2001 while 72 percent were doing so last year.
She said students who are struggling get extra help until they can reach the appropriate grade level and some students can move on to fourth grade even if they don't meet requirements under a "good case exception" in certain circumstances.
"We generally see a bump (in grade-level reading) each year," Lee said. "I think the program is meeting its goals."
Rep. Sharon Steckman, D-Mason City, a former teacher who is the ranking Democrat on the House Education Committee, said students who are held back have increased likelihood of quitting school altogether.
Lee said she didn't have any data that this was the case in Florida. "Not in the third grade," she said. "Maybe in the higher grades, but not at this level."
Teachers and principals
Several of the reform measures change how teachers would work with principals and district administrators. There are provisions, for example, that change how teachers are evaluated, what school districts must consider before they lay off teachers and, even, who can become a teacher.
Mary Jane Cobb, executive director of the Iowa State Education Association, said there are good parts and bad parts to the plan. "I wouldn't say it's anti-union," Cobb said. "I do think parts of it are anti-teacher in my opinion."
For example, she said restricting the weight union contracts put on seniority "is a solution looking for a problem" and she can't see how that provision leads to higher student test scores. Cobb said there were some parts of the reform plan the union and the Branstad administration worked on together.
"I think it's correct to say that we were at the table," Cobb said. "I don't think it's a fair assessment to say that just because we were at the table doesn't mean we agree with everything." She said the next step is to make sure the information gets to her membership.
As for preschool funding, Winckler, a Democrat, said she takes Fandel at her word that the governor won't move to cut it this year, but she's still skeptical.
"I appreciate the clarification," she said. "But this is the same governor who vetoed the earned income tax credit and the work force development offices, both were approved by the legislature. So you just have to watch."