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Education reform dominates Branstad’s legislative goal list

Ben Jacobson, Clinton Herald, Iowa –

DES MOINES — Education reform dominated the second half of Gov. Terry Branstad’s Condition of the State address Tuesday. A 10-point reform plan, revealed last week after a year of research and tweaking, was presented to a joint session of Iowa legislators who will be tasked with implementing the plan’s lofty goals.

Branstad said the reform was necessary to keep Iowa students competitive in an increasingly global economy. The plan would call for increased standards for teaching applicants, an emphasis on literacy programs for young students and the establishment of a fund to help promote innovative learning practices. The $25 million in reforms would be implemented throughout the coming years.

“Let’s do all of this and more for our children with a bipartisan consensus that will stand the test of time,” Branstad said.

Teac-hing applicants would be required to carry a 3.0 grade point average  under the proposed plan, and would be asked to prove proficiency in educational techniques. School administration would also be asked to be more directly involved in student instruction.

New measures would be used to prove student progress, including a kindergarten learning assessment and high school graduation tests. Core subject standards would be redefined, and fine arts, physical education and classes in business education and foreign languages would be emphasized.

“We have a decade of hard work ahead of us,” Branstad said. “So let’s get to work. This is not about this administration or the next …It is about our children’s future and our state’s prosperity and growth.”

Deb Olson, superintendent of the Clinton Community School District, said that she agrees with many of the ideas presented in the reform package. However, she expressed concern with a few elements, and said that funding sources for the changes have not yet been identified.

“I think there’s a lot of things in there that are good for our kids,” she said. “I’m optimistic about them …(But) no one seems to know how all of this is going to be paid for.”

Unfunded mandates often come at the expense of taxpayers, according to Olson, who hoped Branstad would identify funding sources during his speech. She said that several aspects of the plan have potential for “hidden price tags,” or unforseen expenses that would have to be absorbed by local districts.

Tom Parker, superintendent of the Camanche Community School District, had similar concerns.

“As I look at this, and as I reflect on it, a lot of the proposals the governor is putting out there are certainly worthy of discussion,” Parker said. “However, I get the sense that the devil is going to be in the details. That could range from how the reform is funded, to how effectively it is implemented.”

Expanded teacher evaluations could also prove troublesome, Olson said. Educators are already subject to an extensive three-year review, and she believes that establishing additional performance check-ups could ensure administrators have little time for anything else.

Potential pitfalls aside, both Olson and Parker said the reform discussion was a good thing.

Olson went so far as to say that some of the proposed changes “need to happen.” She complimented the plan’s goal of encouraging innovative education techniques, something she said Clinton has been doing for years.

Olson also praised Branstad’s goal of giving college admission testing to all high school juniors. She said that is something the district already does to help high school students be fully aware of post-high school options.

“We’re already ahead of the game,” she said. “We’ve always tried to …look at what’s best for our kids.”

Parker said that the real discussion about how effective the reform package can be will come when final legislation emerges from Des Moines. Still, he said he appreciates the fact the legislators are willing to seriously address educational issues in the state.

“I appreciate the fact that education is being brought to the forefront,” Parker said. “Obviously, education is very important.”

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