Democrats say Republicans in the Iowa House have “gutted” Republican Governor Terry Branstad’s education reform plan by making it optional rather than mandatory for schools, but the governor says he’s not worried.

“Who’s going to turn down the money?” Branstad told reporters late last week, laughing. “They’re going to fight who can be the first school districts to get involved in this. We’re not concerned about that.”

Under the GOP plan set for House debate this week, schools that “opt in” would get more than $300 per pupil and the money could be used to provide bonuses to teachers chosen to be mentors for other teachers and, for schools with low teacher salaries, the money also could be used to raise teacher salaries to $32,000.

“When you put $315 per pupil on the table — you say a school district’s going to walk away from that? ‘No, we don’t want the money,'” Branstad said. “We don’t see that as a threat to this bill.”

The new teacher leadership system Branstad envisions would be phased in over three years, meaning a third of schools would get the additional state funding in year one; two-thirds would get it in year two and all would get the money in year three. According to House Republican Leader Linda Upmeyer of Clear Lake, making it optional gives schools “flexibility.”

“There are lots of schools that are ready to go, that are going to be able to demonstrate how this works, so for schools that are kind of concerned about how this might fit for them, they will have some great examples of how it works,” Upmeyer said during a news conference late last week with other Republican leaders. “…I’m not a bit worried about this opt in/opt out.”

Governor Branstad had recommended raising the beginning salary for teachers to $35,000, but House Republicans plan to reduce that to $32,000. Representative Mary Mascher, a Democrat from Iowa City, said that won’t lure many more students into teaching in Iowa schools.

“We are already 45th in the nation in beginning teacher salaries,” Mascher said during a news conference late last week. “This will do little to bring us up and allow teachers, especially beginning teachers, more of an incentive to come here.”

But Mascher said the “most critical” piece of Branstad’s education reform plan was creating teacher leaders inside schools and making that optional is a step backwards.

“If you want the best and brightest teachers in every classroom, it seems to me you wouldn’t make it optional,” Mascher said. “It seems that we would make that a part of the plan and expect district to figure out how to best meet the needs of the students in their particular district.”

The House is scheduled to debate the GOP’s adjusted education reform plan sometime this week. Senators have been holding meetings about the governor’s education reform plan, but a bill has not yet emerged from a senate committee.