A small group of legislators is treading carefully as they try to craft a bill that could spark a new discussion about the direction of education in Iowa.
Representative Wayne Ford, a Democrat from Des Moines, says he doesn’t want to upset folks by talking about forcing school district closures. "If you put the wrong words out…consolidation…reorganization," Ford says, "they’re not going for it."
Earlier this month another Des Moines Democrat, State Senator Matt McCoy, sparked reaction from small school advocates when he publicly discussed forced consolidation. According to Ford, rural Iowans have a point when they deride the performance of students in Iowa’s largest school districts and brag about the test scores of students in small schools.
"I said four or five years ago if we don’t watch these urban schools, the urban scores are going to go down and we’re all going to be on probation," Ford says.
Ford is leading a House subcommittee that’s drafting a bill that would create an "efficiencies" effort in the Iowa Department of Education to examine a wide range of topics — from ways to save money transporting students to the contracts some districts have drawn up to share superintendents.
But Jeff Berger of the Iowa Department of Education says his agency issued a report last March examining those topics. "A pretty interesting read," Berger says of the report.
Berger is asking legislators to consider giving his agency authority to explore in greater detail the school consolidation that’s been happening in other states. "Maine went from roughly the same number of school districts we have now to about 25. Arkansas put in a bill that basically said at a certain point you can’t exist if you’re under 500 kids and Nebraska went totally away from their county school system which still supported one-room schoolhouses," Berger says.
"We just think it would be fascinating to hear lessons learned from each of them: What went well? What didn’t go well?…What are unforeseen wrinkles in the process, so we don’t have to reinvent that bad wheel if there is one."
Ford’s subcommittee is scheduled to meet Wednesday to discuss this issue and review proposals. Iowa currently has 362 school districts, but nearly two dozen offer just K-through-6 classes and send students on to a larger district for junior high and high school classes.
A 2004 Orient-Macksburg graduate started a Facebook group after McCoy publicly called for a discussion of forcing small schools to consolidate.