Area lawmakers offer legislative preview to board

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Education reform to be one of session's top priorities

A free-flowing exchange of insights occurred between area legislators and Spencer school board members Tuesday night.

Sen. David Johnson (R-Ocheyedan), Rep. Royd Chambers (R-Sheldon) and Rep. Jeff Smith (R-Okoboji), who took part in the hour-long session, informed board members that education, mental health and property tax reform will take center stage this upcoming legislative session.

"On the House side, I think there's a desire to do some type of education reform," Smith said. " ... We've seen that we're not moving forward like we need to do with the other states. How do we get to that next level is, I think, yet to be determined."

Johnson, who serves on the Senate Education Committee and will be in the midst of it all, attempted to offer Gov. Terry Branstad's perspective to those in attendance. For starters, he's asking if all 11th grade students in the state should be required to take the ACT college entrance exam.

"That's one thing out there," Johnson said. "I don't know if it's going to go anywhere."

"There may be an attempt to seek a waiver from the No Child Left Behind law because the feeling is it doesn't really fit Iowa's system. So, that might be in there," he added. "There are all these questions about literacy at the end of third grade and about assessing if kindergarten students are ready for school. There was interest in the governor's plan to expand the school charter law. In what way, we don't know. But, there might be more options for charter schools."

Superintendent Terry Hemann suggested lawmakers focus on class sizes at the K-3 level statewide, and getting them to under 20 students per teacher, instead of focusing on retaining every student who can't read at the end of third grade.

Board members were told overhauling the way teachers are paid, as proposed by Branstad and Jason Glass, director of the Iowa Department of Education, will be delayed for one year. Iowa's top education officials had proposed a tiered system of teacher pay, which would involve a sharp increase in beginning teacher pay and allow teachers to move through a series of pay grades based on performance in the classroom.

"There is talk again about school days versus school hours," Johnson said.

The senator also reported the topic of school start dates was broached during a recent meeting with Iowa Lakes Corridor representatives.

"(Senate President Jack Kibbie) informed us, because it is an issue with the corridor, and especially with the tourism-related businesses in this area, of setting a school start date. He plans to introduce a bill that would get rid of the waivers," Johnson said. "I believe we need to take into account the economic impact of having an early school start. I think we're losing opportunity all across the state."

Spencer board members were told the IDE director is reviewing whether Iowa Core Curriculum is really what the state wants to do.

"I just wonder if the hard and fast rule of when you have to have it implemented may be backed off," Johnson predicted. "There could be discussion about the standards within the core and trying to improve or expand upon them. But, again, the details just aren't there."

Chambers, who told board members there will be another round of state government reorganization proposed, also forecast discussions will occur about Iowa's Area Education Agency system, how it will be restructured in the future and what its responsibilities will be.

As board members told the three legislators about Spencer's teacher peer coaching initiative, Smith asked district representatives to email each of them about programs they see working well, especially as they enter education reform discussions at the statewide level.

As board and legislative representatives discussed how such measures would be financed, the two-year legislative agreement for a 2 percent allowable growth rate was mentioned.

"Currently projected, the increase in education funding is about $82 million for next fiscal year," Johnson said. "How that's going to be split up will be one of the questions right now. Although, there are people saying they expect that number to fall, I think, because if there's declining enrollment, that would have an effect on how much of an increase in state aid there would be. So, that's still a moving target."

"These reforms come at a cost," Smith added. "That's going to be one of the factors that kind of keeps people from getting all on the same page."

"That's why one of the session focuses is going to be on economic development," Chambers said. "It's going to be on property tax reform and all those ideas trying to grow the economy. Because the only way you're going to fund what we would like to do in a perfect world with education is by creating new wealth. Without that happening, a lot of these proposals may sound nice, but they're not going to happen."

The outgoing Sheldon representative added, "Although there's going to be strong interest in looking at all these ideas, I don't think anything will get passed out of the House that is not a bipartisan bill. Simply because there are so many unanswered questions."

Johnson concluded the joint gathering by telling Spencer board members that he expects to see Gov. Branstad's budget out earlier than his predecessor's.

"I think he wants to move that up and let us get to work," he said. "This will be a fast-moving session because we're moving the funnel dates -- those self-imposed deadlines of getting legislation out of committee -- up a week. That's going to make a big difference."

"We're trying to have a 90-day session rather than a 120-day session, which saves us a considerable amount of money," Chambers added.

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