From the beginning, we have applauded and supported the administration of Gov. Terry Branstad for its pursuit of education reform. In a July 2011 editorial just after a two-day Education Summit in Des Moines, we urged Iowans - elected and appointed state and local government and education leaders, school administrators, classroom teachers and parents - to seize the moment for reform by embracing a commitment to building the "world-class schools" necessary to properly prepare our children for the world of tomorrow.
The first seeds of education reform were planted during last year's legislative session. This year, lawmakers must go further.
In his Condition of the State speech earlier this month, Branstad laid out a comprehensive plan for reform of public education in Iowa. After falling far short of the meaningful reform he wanted last year, the governor fashioned a new plan for this year. In building the plan, Branstad heard recommendations made by members of five task forces comprised of legislators and a cross-section of education representatives, including administrators and teachers.
The Branstad plan is bold, but not extreme or radical. We look favorably on his proposals to increase starting pay for teachers; provide new career paths for teachers; give first-year teachers a reduced workload so they can spend time being mentored by veteran colleagues; provide raises for educators who assume additional responsibilities, such as mentoring; give outstanding college students who agree to teach math and science in Iowa schools for at least five years tuition reimbursement and a hiring bonus; improve evaluations for both teachers and administrators; and expand Iowa Department of Education online learning opportunities.
Taking these steps would meet key goals of strengthened accountability in our public school system and improved student performance, in our view.
As is true of property tax reform, we believe the state can afford to make this important investment in Iowa's future because its budget and overall fiscal condition are strong. In our minds, the bigger question is this: Can we afford not to make this investment?
We understand the Branstad plan must be studied and debated in detail within what is a split-control Legislature, but we urge our lawmakers to not settle for tinkering at the edges again this year and to make substantive education reform a signature achievement in this year's session.
Branstad wants lawmakers to finish education reform by the end of February - and before they take up allowable growth for next year. History makes us skeptical about this because too often we have watched the biggest issues of legislative sessions put off to the end.
Representative Ron Jorgensen, R-Sioux City, told us his goal is to move education reform out of the House Education Committee he chairs within the next couple of weeks. If both the House and Senate commit to making it a priority, he believes it's possible to complete education reform next month.
If the Legislature is, in fact, going to put off debate over K-12 state aid for next year until education reform is finished, then it's absolutely paramount reform gets done as early as possible. We do not wish to see local school districts left endlessly waiting under a cloud of uncertainty about state aid. Districts need this information to complete their budgets for the next school year. Holding them hostage to education reform for the next three months isn't in anyone's interests.
At the 2011 Education Summit, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan spoke in compelling fashion about "stagnation" in Iowa's public schools. We found his remarks sobering. They should have served as a wake-up call to shake our state from status-quo complacency.