The stage is nearly set for negotiations over how wide-ranging the legislature’s education reform proposals may be. Senate Democrats put the finishing touches on their plan late Wednesday afternoon, before tabling the bill so an absent senator could return for the final vote.

Senator Herman Quirmbach, a Democrat from Ames, says over the past dozen years legislators have already taken steps to improve early childhood education and approved more rigorous course standards for high schoolers.

“We have a remarkable record in this legislature and in this state government and at local levels at implementing educational improvements and reforms,” Quirmbach said. One-by-one, Democrats turned down Republican measures that would have aligned the bill more closely with Republican Governor Terry Branstad’s proposals.

Senator Brad Zaun, a Republican from Urbandale, also touted his own idea of closing down the Iowa Department of Education. “I just think that we need to think outside the box. We’ve got to do better,” Zaun said. “…My idea is just empowering the parents, empowering our local school boards to make the right decisions.”

However, Zaun withdrew his proposal before the senate could vote on it. Some of the sharpest points of disagreement were over efforts to change tenure-based pay for teachers and administrators. Senator Pat Ward, a Republican from West Des Moines, says it makes no sense to base pay on how many years someone has been on the job.

“In the private sector, most employers hire, fire and make layoff decisions based on a person’s performance,” Ward said. “Merit works.” Senator Rob Hogg, a Democrat from Cedar Rapids, says, in general, Republicans have been painting a picture of Iowa schools that’s more grim than the reality.

“Oh, we’ve got bad students and bad teachers!” Hogg suggested as the Republicans’ refrain. “What Iowa are you looking at?” House Republicans voted on their own education reform plan in mid-March. Legislators from both parties will have to bridge the differences and come up with a compromise plan that can pass the Republican-led House and the Democratically-led Senate.