July 14, 2014

Legislators urged to bury “partisan banners” & enact “bold” education reform

Over 40 Iowans traveled to the statehouse tonight to speak at a public hearing focused on education reform bills pending in the House and Senate, but the event began with a stern message from Governor Terry Branstad.

“The status quo is not good enough,” Branstad said near the end of his five-and-a-half minute speech.

Branstad also delivered a warning to legislators in the room. “Iowans are counting on you to be bold, not timid!” Branstad shouted.

Danielle Hubbard, a senior at Van Meter High School, was among the first behind the microphone once the public got a chance to speak. She urged legislators to give students more say in their own education.

“Currently our education largely is based on seat time or the idea that a student must be in a classroom being instructed for a certain amount of time in order to achieve the proper eduation,” Hubbard said. “However, not every student’s the same. Not every student requires the same amount of time to master a lesson or a subject.”

The governor’s education reform proposals cover a wide range of topics, from requiring a repeat of the grade if a third-grader flunks a reading test and forcing colleges to enforce a three-point grade average for students who want to be teachers. Legislators have expressed reluctance to embrace those two ideas. Grandview University president Kent Henning said his institution already requires aspiring teachers to maintain at least a 3.0 GPA in their classes

“You see, time and time again our students demonstrate to us that they will rise to the high expectations we set for them,” Henning said. “I have great confidence in them, so now I challenge you to pass a complete package of education reforms, not just the parts that are politically expedient.”

Graham Gillette, a former Des Moines School Board member, urged legislators to “rise beyond” the partisan divide and take action..

“The pervasive destructiveness of modern politics has driven too many of you into the bunkers of your party caucuses. The laser focus on trying to add to your party’s ranks in the next election is shallow and short-sighted,” Gillette said. “…For the sake of Iowa’s future, lay down your partisan banners and find a way to find some common ground on Branstad’s proposals.”

Des Moines teacher Andrew Rasmussen railed against legislators who’d like to tie teacher pay to their students’ performance on tests.

“Am I, as a teacher, to blame for students whose parents do not provide proper support at home?” Rasmussen asked. “Unfortunately I am unable to go back in a time machine and change a student’s past and family background.”

Some speakers at tonight’s public hearing used the forum to plead with legislators to send more state support to schools. Jeff Anderson of Boone, the president-elect of the Iowa Association of School Boards, urged lawmakers to boost the level of general state aid or “allowable growth” for schools,

“It is a mathematical certainty that as costs continue to increase faster than allowable growth, disricts will be forced to make ever deeper cuts in programs and the quality of opportunities we provide for students will suffer as a result,” Anderson said.

The idea of for-profit charter schools operated on-line drew the “enthusiastic” support of Jon Valentine of Iowa City, the father of three school-aged children who were enrolled in an on-line academy in another state.

“Although this type of public education certainly will not be the first choice for everyone, I am convinced that if it is allowed in this state and protected legislatively, it will grow and flourish,” Valentine said.

Another idea legislators are considering: requiring all Iowa high school juniors to take the ACT or some other college entrance exam. Nancy Sebring, superintendent of the Des Moines Public School District, enrollment in more rigorous “advanced placement” or A.P. courses has more than doubled since her district implemented that requirement for juniors.

“Students benefit from acquiring the currency that is needed to apply for colleges of their choice,” Sebring said. “In addition, they can begin to think about their post-secondary plans while there is still time to make good decisions about course-takings, about effort and about their career goals.”

Sebring said requiring juniors to take the ACT has helped reverse the “culture of low expectations” among some parents who did not think their children are “college material.”