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Senate’s turn to tackle education reform

Rod Boshart, CR Gazette –

DES MOINES — Partisans in the split-control Iowa Legislature are optimistic they will be able to send a scaled-back version of Gov. Terry Branstad proposed education reform package to his desk before adjourning later this month.

The Republican-controlled House passed a sweeping education reform package in February that would require more student testing, seeks expansion of charters schools and keeps in place a controversial third-grade retention program that survived a pairing-down process by the governor to recognize the financial and political realities of being able to fast-track a major overhaul of policies affecting students, teachers, administrators, parents, interest groups and public institutions.

The House also rejected key components in Branstad’s reform recommendations by eliminating a requirement that prospective teachers have and maintain a 3.0 GPA, and placing new restrictions on who can take online classes before sending the Iowa Senate one of the session’s must-do priorities for further consideration.

Now, Democrats who hold a 26-24 edge in the Senate prepare to make their modifications this week.

Sen. Brian Schoenjahn, D-Arlington, co-chairman of the House-Senate education budget subcommittee and vice chairman of the Senate Education Committee, said forging middle ground among the competing reform approaches will come down to “what’s doable, what’s sustainable and what works.”

Much of the Senate debate will focus on early reading emphasis and small class sizes so teachers will have the ability to help struggling students catch up with the rest of their classmates, helping students learn at their own pace, expanding core classes to include arts, music and technology, making more time available for coloration and classroom coaching to help improve teachers’ skills, establishing local experiments to measure impacts on student achievement of extending the school year and school day, and using the best online learning resources to expand and enhance course offerings in local school districts, Schoenjahn said.

Sen. Herman Quirmbach, D-Ames, chairman of the Senate Education Committee who will be floor manager of the education reform bill, said there’s broad support for competency-based education and for expanding the topics covered by the core curriculum. He also said there’s strong support for early-grade reading and getting students help early but he noted “some controversy over retention decisions” that would end social promotion for kids struggling to read after finishing third grade.

Quirmbach also noted “a lot of heartburn” over two Iowa school districts announced plans to open online academies this fall.

Clayton Ridge Community School District and CAM Community School District contracted with private online education providers under current state law. Students from across the state could enroll in the academies and have their lessons delivered over the Internet. The private companies receive the students’ state aid as payment, less an administrative fee of 3 percent or 3.5 percent that goes to the host district.

Quirmbach expressed concern that virtual academies in Colorado have been marred by high dropout rates and low achievement levels. “That’s not a direction we want to go,” he said.

A major obstacle to agreement will be financing, Schoenjahn noted, saying Senate Democrats won’t accept House Republican plans to shift money from existing class-size reduction and other programs to cover the $17 million or more price tag needed to implement the new reforms.

“Taking money from existing programs to finance reform is probably not the direction that we are interested in,” he said.

“I think if House Republicans really want to follow through on their governor’s proposal, I think they’re going to have to put some money on the table,” added Quirmbach. “There are some things in the bill that we can do that don’t cost any money, but if you really want to intervene and help early childhood or early grade reading, you’ve got to put some resources into that. That’s one of the top priorities of our caucus to be sure.”

Rep. Greg Forristall, R-Macedonia, chairman of the House Education Committee, said the prospects are good for lawmakers to be able to deliver some version of education reform to Branstad’s desk this month. But he said it was still too early to say definitely what that package might look like, and as to how and at what level it would be funded.

“There is some portion of ed reform that has a pretty good shot,” said House Speaker Kraig Paulsen, R-Hiawatha. “There is a handful of things we’re in agreement on. I think there are pieces of consequence that I’m hoping we can get done.”

Jason Glass, director of the state Department of Education, said last week that he remains “optimistic and encouraged that we will have a significant education reform bill this session.”

Schoenjahn shared that optimism, although he noted that “in the Senate, we’re in agreement with several of the governor’s reforms. I think he’s got more of a reach with some folks in the House than he has with the Senate, it would appear.”

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