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Iowa Education Reform

Part of Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad's education reform package would require a literacy exam that all third graders would be required to pass before they move on to the fourth grade. (Kevin Schmidt/Quad-City Times)

If only summits were solutions. Then, all the energy, innovation and camaraderie of last July’s Iowa education summit would translate into wonderfully reformed Iowa schools.

Instead, lawmakers in Des Moines still seem far apart on two versions of tepid reform that fall far short of the aspirations we heard last summer. That’s when Iowa educators, national experts and the U.S. secretary of education convened to elevate Iowa education above the politicalfray that stymies innovation.

The approach promised by Terry Branstad during his campaign and implemented with aplomb, left us optimistic. Here’s how we expressed it in an Aug. 3 editorial:

“Iowans, under Branstad’s leadership, enjoyed a sophisticated conversation focused on reviving and sustaining academic excellence. It was the kind of conversation that simply can’t arise during a legislative session defined by partisan winner and losers. Instead, the two-day  summit showed lawmakers how to discuss alternatives with little judgment or condemnation; focus on critical outcomes, not just competing bills; and identify long-term strategies, not just legislative tactics.

“Not to worry; there will be plenty of time next session of judgment, partisan bills and tactics. But this education summit helped Iowa leaders learn the language of compromise and commitment, a language neither welcomed nor recognized in the heat of a legislative session.”

It turns out all of the prescient planning was no match for legislative gridlock.

Now, in the waning days of this year’s General Assembly, lawmakers have pretty much forgotten about innovating teacher pay and development. Any serious push for charter schools seems dead. Even the most basic element of reform, agreeing to waive the useless “No Child Left Behind” federal program, still is bogged down in the disagreement.

Even Illinois managed to pass its “No Child” waiver, allowing the state to dispense with the expensive, punitive, after-the-fact testing which hurt far more schools than it ever helped.

Iowa’s gridlock comes as the state celebrates a record

$595.5 million in reserves, a figure just reported by the state’s Legislative Service Agency.

That surplus and the careful planning at last year’s summit should leave Iowa poised to lead the nation on education innovation. Now we’re hearing some pressure to give up, adjourn and try again later.

As lawmakers rush to conclude this session, what should be their legacy?

Iowa —where lawmakers adjourn on time and keep government coffers full.

We hope legislative leadership acts so that Iowa can quickly and accurately state: Iowa — Investing in the best education system in America.