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Community News Network

January 15, 2013

Educators react to Branstad proposal

So far so good, but the ‘devil is in the details’

OTTUMWA — Part of the new plan for education — fund the old plan.

“I have never seen a governor, in my time in Iowa, come out with an idea for education that had $185 million behind it,” said Jon Sheldahl, executive director of the Great Prairie Area Education Agency.

Gov. Terry Branstad unveiled the education proposal he submitted to the lawmakers Monday. After meetings with teachers, parents and community members around Iowa, as well as several seminars and town hall events, details of the plan are now available.

The new teacher leadership and compensation system builds on landmark bipartisan legislation in 2001 that created, but never funded, a teacher career ladder.

It will be phased in over several years, and the administration said it gives school districts the flexibility to customize leadership roles to meet their local needs.

“Hopefully, everyone will still have some input,” said Kevin Crall, superintendent of Albia schools.

He said education leadership groups will likely have input as the proposal moves through the Iowa House and Senate. It all depends on details of the bill, which have yet to be analyzed.

The goal, according to a release from the Iowa Department of Education, is to raise the status of the teaching profession and attract and retain talented educators.

 Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds said, “Teachers are the single most important influence on a child’s success inside school, and educators are being asked to do much more to prepare students for our knowledge-driven economy. We must make sure new teachers are ready to rise to that challenge, while also providing more support for teachers already in the classroom.”

The DOE says the centerpieces of the project include:

• Raise Iowa’s minimum starting salary from $28,000 to $35,000 to make teaching more attractive.

 • Keep top teachers in front of children, but pay these teacher leaders more to take on more instructional leadership responsibility alongside school administrators, which will strengthen teaching throughout the building. Teachers who are selected for  mentor roles will be paid more for sharing their expertise and for working additional days to coach all educators.

 • Give new teachers a reduced teaching load their first year so they can spend more time learning from outstanding veteran teachers.

“That would be a significant change for Iowa school districts,” said Sheldahl. “My original response to it was there are a lot of good things in it.”

Both he and Crall said it’s important to remember that the Legislature will likely make changes to the final bill.

Sheldahl said the research indicates teachers need to learn as part of their work day — every day.

“We’ve been trying to do it for an hour and a half, once a month,” Sheldahl said of the professional development days districts have. “This is going to assure that supportive school culture exists, and to me, that’s definitely the bright spot of what they have here.”

But there are questions that may not have been answered yet. For example, if master teachers are pulled out of class in order to coach younger teachers, and younger teachers have a reduced class schedule, won’t Iowa need more teachers?

Maybe. Sheldahl said he saw one group’s figures estimating a thousand more teachers may be needed.

“We all want our teachers to be leaders in our buildings,” said Crall. “ I think everyone agrees we shouldn’t be afraid of education change. It’s just a matter if we are all comfortable with the details of the plan.”

“I don’t know of anybody in education circles in Iowa who doesn’t say we can all do better,” Sheldahl said.

Branstad said in a release through the DOE that other states and nations have made “dramatic, whole-system changes that have pushed their education systems past Iowa’s. Iowa, meanwhile, has slipped from being a top performer” to middle of the pack on national tests.

The investment proposed by Branstad and Reynolds scales up over five years, starting with $14 million in the first year and $187 million at full implementation in five years.

That’s admirable, said Sheldahl. But all that money is tied directly to the new programs. He’s hoping the Legislature and the governor remember those incremental increases every district is paying: gasoline, heat, copier paper.

Signing contracts often means an increase in employee pay, even if it’s just 3 or 4 percent. But that payroll accounts for 80 percent of expenses in some districts.

Sheldahl said what used to be called allowable growth needs an equivalent, something to allow a couple percentage points rise in a school district’s income.

“I think superintendents  like that the governor is making education a priority. But they also need a certain amount of incremental funding they can count on. There’s two chunks of money, money that will drive reforms. But there’s also the money that pays the cost of doing business.”

For his part, the governor has said he’ll spend “significant” money to fund his new programs, but is this funding in place of or in addition to allowable growth?

Sheldahl said administrators are wondering the same thing right now. A message from the Courier to the DOE was not returned by press time Monday.

“Right now,” said Crall, “the devil is in the details.”

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