Educating Iowa Part 3 of 4: Branstad hopes to benefit learning with added incentives

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Only a week into the 2013 legislative session, Gov. Branstad's proposed bill to reform Iowa's education system is already generating discussion. In the 157-page bill, Branstad focuses on changing four key areas of the education system: teacher compensation and career development, recruitment of educated professionals to become teachers, the "college and career ready" seal and online learning opportunities.

As part of his proposed education reform bill, Gov. Branstad hopes to offer a better learning experience to students through the Iowa Learning Online and Iowa Promise Diploma Seal programs.

The diploma seal is an added element to the students' diplomas that indicates they are ready for college or a career. In order to achieve this seal, the student must demonstrate competency through readiness assessment tests.

"It's an optional seal to earn," said Rep. Megan Hess (R-Spencer). "The students that go above and beyond the standard classroom expectations are the ones who will have earned the seal."

The goal of the seal program is to provide preference for college admission or hiring for the students who have earned the seal. The first class to have the opportunity to earn the seal will be the graduating class of 2015, with an expectation that the program will be fully implemented by July 2017.

Another opportunity for students to achieve in the classroom would be through the Iowa Learning Online program, a state-run program that provides common core learning opportunities for students who would otherwise have scheduling problems.

"It offers flexibility," Hess said. "The courses are rigorous, and they provide a service both to the student and to the school."

Combined, these programs would cost $5.5 million in the first year, a significant portion of the $14 million proposed for the entire education bill.

"On the budget side, the question becomes, 'Can the state follow through on its funding commitments?'" said Sen. David Johnson (R-Ocheyedan). "On the policy side, we should all be working from the standpoint of 'do no harm.'"

This bill includes not only the Iowa Promise Diploma Seals Program and the Iowa Learning Online Program, but also the teacher compensation and career development system, and Teach Iowa Initiative mentioned earlier in this series, and the educator development system forthcoming.

At the end of a five-year trend, the expected cost of the bill will have risen to $187 million, ending the five years with a total cumulative cost of $581.5 million.

As of Wednesday evening, the Senate has proposed three funding options to an education subcommittee. One of these options includes an allowable growth of 4 percent, which would cost $134.9 million not included in the cost of the education reform bill.

Allowable growth is increased cost-per-pupil spending that intends to account for the rise in cost from year to year.

While legislation states that allowable growth must be set within the first 30 days of the legislative session, Branstad has suggested he will not sign an allowable growth proposal until action has been taken on his education reform bill.

Allowable growth for the 2013-14 school year was supposed to have been set during last year's legislative session, but has not yet been determined.

Area superintendents are eager for the allowable growth number to be set, so they can begin drafting budgets for the coming school year.

"We'll probably assume zero percent unless we hear something different," Clay Central-Everly Superintendent Dennis McClain said. "If he doesn't sign it or it doesn't go through, the allowable growth automatically defaults back to zero. We can only go on that."

"It's about having a plan that will come through with the money in the end," Johnson said. "You have the policy side and you have the budget side."

He continued, "We need the discussion, and we need to have these issues brought up before committees and moved forward on. Lines have been drawn already, and we have a good place to start our debate."

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