Only one week into the 2013 legislative session, and Governor Branstad's proposed bill to reform Iowa's education system is already generating discusssion. In the 157-page bill, Gov. Branstad focuses on changing four key areas of the education system: teacher compensation and career development, recruitment of educated professionals to become teachers, the "career or college ready" seal and online learning opportunities for students.
Likely the most definitive, and most debated, element to Governor Banstad's education reform bill involves teacher compensation and career development.
Statewide, the minimum salary for a first-year teacher is $28,000. Branstad's bill would raise the starting salary to $35,000.
"Teachers do great work," Clay Central-Everly Superintendent Dennis McClain said. "I'd love to see them make more money, as long as there's a funding mechanism behind it."
"The concern I have with raising teacher's starting salary is for the teachers who have already been working several years and are now making $35,000," Senator David Johnson said. "Now there'll be teachers coming in their first year and making the same amount."
Along with additional compensation, the Governor's bill also hopes to provide career development opportunities for educators within the schools themselves.
According to the career development plan, a teacher's career will begin during their student teaching. Instead of student teaching for one semester, however, they will student teach for one full year. Even with the extra semester, however, teachers should still be able to graduate college in four years.
A task force of education professionals around the state studied ways to improve Iowa's school system, specifically through career development.
"By most accounts, Iowa's schools are just as good - if not better - than they have ever been. ... Iowa's children deserve nothing less than an educator workforce of the highest caliber, and Iowa's teachers deserve a thoughtful system of professional supports and career pathways," the task force's final report said.
According to the Governor's bill, Iowa teachers will be classified into four categories: initial, career, model, mentor and lead.
The year as a student teacher will be one of two years as an "initial" teacher, similar to a first-year resident in the medical profession. During this period, the teacher will be mentored by a more experienced teacher through intensive observation and supervision. The initial teacher would be given time to observe other classrooms both in their school and in neighboring districts.
After two years, the initial teacher would undergo an evaluation to determine whether they are ready to move up to the level of "career" teacher.
The career teacher spends all of their time in the classroom with students. Should a teacher want to advance, they would apply to become a model, mentor or lead teacher.
A model teacher is also full-time in the classroom. In addition, however, their classroom becomes available to less experienced teachers to observe. The contract of a model teacher would be extended five days past that of an initial or career teacher, though they would be compensated $2,000 more.
A mentor teacher would spend about 75 percent of the time in the classroom with students, and about 25 percent of the time with less experienced teachers. Their contract would extend 10 days, and their salary would increase by $5,000.
A lead teacher would spend about 50 percent of the time with the students, and 50 percent of the time with less experienced teachers. Their contract would extend by 15 days and their salary would increase by about $10,000.
McClain noted he's "not opposed" to the change, though he's concerned about the additional time teachers would be spending outside of the classroom.
"The more we can get seasoned teachers working with younger teachers, the better," McClain said, "but it's hard enough to find time to collaborate."
He continued, "What would we do with our students if we gave our teachers only half of a day in the classroom?"
"The idea of mentoring is great, but smaller schools have a limited number of staff," Johnson said. "Our smaller schools have excellent education programs and great graduation rates."
Representative Megan Hess understands the difficulty many smaller schools would have, and noted that the changes "would put too much of a strain" on the districts.
"The Area Education Agencies would help with the gap," she said. "School districts can share teachers, and it would offer more fluidity between districts."
One of the biggest determinants to this portion of the bill is funding. As of Friday, allowable growth for the 2013-2014 school year hadn't been set yet. Johnson estimates that Democratic legislators will propose an allowable growth of 4 percent next week, though he's doubtful that the proposal will be set.
Four percent allowable growth would add about $130 million to the education budget for the coming school year. The Governor's bill, should it pass, would add an additional $14 million.
"We have a strong fiscal position in the state," Johnson said. "We're projected to have an ending fund balance of $800 million. The Republicans are projecting, however, that when we get done with the commitments we have on the table, we'll have about $200 million yet."
He continued, "This is money here for just one time. It's unsustainable."
The Governor has already suggested that he will not sign an allowable growth number until his bill begins to move forward.
"The Republicans are siding with the Governor on this one," Johnson said. "He's dealt the cards, and he wants to have policy changes, but he's not doing anything about allowable growth until there's legislation moving forward."
"Allowable growth is already on the books, so let's take care of that," McClain said. "Right now, we have to assume zero percent, whether something gets done or not. We can only go on that."
"It's hard for people to understand allowable growth," Hess said, "but we have to figure out the legislature first. Before we determine how much we can pay, we have to determine what we're paying for."