Iowa's education reform plan goes optional

2013-02-18T05:00:00Z Iowa's education reform plan goes optionalMike Wiser The Quad-City Times
February 18, 2013 5:00 am  • 

DES MOINES — 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.”

Here are some of the other changes to key provisions in what the governor proposed and what the House is expected to vote on this week.

DIPLOMA SEALS

Governor: Students who meet a set of to-be-determined standards get a special seal on their diploma that shows they met criteria to be considered college- or career-ready in certain disciplines and fields. The “Iowa Promise Diploma Seal” program had the support of business groups and others who said some high school graduates aren’t prepared for the working world or are forced to take remedial classes in college.

House: The seal is gone, but a special designation does appear on a high school graduate’s transcripts. “I think we’re OK with the certificate of distinction. It’s another tool for employers and students, and even colleges, so the students can distinguish themselves,” said Nicole Crain, vice president of government relations with the Iowa Association of Business and Industry. “Employers can say, ‘Oh, I know this certificate. This certificate means something.’”

EVALUATIONS

Governor: Teacher evaluations are done annually, but two of the evaluations are peer reviews, not supervisor reviews. Last year, Gov. Terry Branstad pushed for annual supervisor reviews as opposed to the system in place that requires supervisor reviews once every three years.

House: The House version struck the peer review part and put annual supervisor reviews back into the legislation. Iowa State Education Association Executive Director Mary Jane Cobb said she wasn’t convinced of the need for annual supervisor reviews. “Summative evaluations by an administrator aren’t as important as the quality of the review,” she said. “The whole point of peer review is there is a value to having other teachers see you in the classroom.”

SCHOLARSHIPS

Governor: Created a Teach Iowa scholarship program that provides $4,000 per year in grants for up to five years for “high-caliber” teachers to teach in Iowa. The bill put $1.5 million a year in fiscal years 2014, 2015 and 2016 for the program.

House: The House version keeps everything pretty much the same, except it opens up the scholarship to students from other states as well.

COMPETENCY-BASED EDUCATION

Governor: The governor’s bill did not include language on competency-based education. Competency-based education measures students on the skills they learn and mastery of subject matter as opposed to the time they spend in a classroom.

House: Requires the Iowa Department of Education to develop a draft plan to introduce competency-based education to the state and submit it to the General Assembly.

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