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Iowa education

Iowa education chief brought new openness to push for better schools

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DES MOINES | Everything was working out exactly as Gov. Terry Branstad’s team had predicted.

At the beginning of the 2013 legislative session, the governor’s office pitched an education reform proposal that left Democrats and Republicans wanting, according to outgoing Department of Education Director Jason Glass.

Republicans would want tougher accountability measures for teachers and school districts, and Democrats would want more money for programs. By the time it was all said and done, legislators would have something similar to what the governor originally offered.

But by the time the bill got to conference committee, House Republicans had thrown him — and the governor’s staff — a huge curve.

“The miscalculation that I think we all made is, we underestimated how much Speaker (Kraig) Paulsen and the House Republicans, their interest in the home-school components versus the accountability components,” Glass said. “Turns out they were really interested in moving those home-school elements; they were not as interested in moving those accountability elements.”

It was yet another lesson in politics for Glass, who during his 2 1/2 years as the state’s education director helped shepherd Branstad’s education reform agenda through the Legislature by reaching out to and recruiting those who seldom ventured into Des Moines.

Now, as he prepares to leave Iowa’s capital city for a job in the school district where he first made a national reputation for himself, Glass considered what he’s leaving behind.

The legacy of the education reform law — which changes the way thousands of teachers are paid, evaluated and promoted, ushers in new tests for Iowa’s schoolchildren and gives wider deference to those who choose to home school — belongs to Branstad.

But Glass also leaves a legacy. It’s how an appointed department head — a registered Democrat — combined social media with old-school stump speeches for any Kiwanis Club, Rotary or PTO that would have him to build political pressure for a Republican governor’s legacy project.

“I was brought here to bring the rain,” Glass says, twiddling his fingers like they were raindrops.


Glass was unique among the state’s appointed officials by the way he embraced social media, particularly the micro-blogging site Twitter.

He’s one of the most prolific tweeters in state government, surpassing even elected officials, including his boss, Terry Branstad, in the number of tweets he’s pushed out and the number of followers he has.

Glass used Twitter to engage people who were interested in education policy and found a cadre of critics and supporters in the Twitterverse.

Folks such as Scott McLeod from the University of Kentucky, Grundy Center Assistant Principal Ann Lebo and Waverly-Shell Rock Educational Services Director Bridgette Waggoner would engage Glass in policy debates via 140-character messages that sometimes lasted for hours.

It was, Glass said, a calculated effort on his part to try out, and get support for, the governor’s policy.

“Coming here, I didn’t have the relationships with the legislators to fall back on, so I made it a point to reach out to people who did," he says. "These are people who are deeply interested in the discussions we were having, and they could reach out to their elected officials, so it was about building grassroots.”

His openness sometimes brought political heat, such as when he and fundraiser Nick Ryan of the American Future Fund sparred over the topic of public versus private schools for two hours on Twitter during Glass’ third month on the job.

Other times it turned into a chance to push the education reform agenda in a new way, such as when he accepted a challenge from McLeod — a critic of too much standardized testing — to take the ACT. Glass got an above-average 27; McLeod, a near-perfect 34.

“The only regret is I was sitting across from Scott, who is a genius,” Glass says now.

He says he learned from those first days to be more judicious in responding to critics.

“I think, at first, I took it more personally than I should have,” he says. “I got better at it.”

In the end, the openness paid dividends for him — and by extension, the governor — from people who had every reason to be skeptical of the state’s education reform plans.

“I always knew I could pick up the phone and get him,” said Mary Jane Cobb, executive director with the Iowa State Education Association. “We frequently had a seat at the table, which hasn’t always been the case in the past.”

Or, as McLeod wrote on his blog “Dangerously Irrelevant” the night Glass announced he would be leaving Iowa: “He has tried to help us learn from high-achieving school systems and he’s facilitated the expansion of online learning. He fostered the #iaedfuture Twitter hashtag (which has become an important channel for conversations about Iowa school policy) and has been exceptionally accessible to the larger public via his blog and Twitter,” McLeod wrote. “So I’m going to miss you, Jason. Thanks for taking the ACT with me. Thanks for the public Twitter exchanges that everyone saw and the private email exchanges that everyone didn’t.”


That Iowa’s sweeping education reform bill passed out of the Legislature the same May night a school board in Colorado named Glass as its new superintendent was nothing short of serendipitous.

The 41-year-old is returning to Eagle County, Colo., which is where he first made a reputation for himself as a human resources director who smoothed out opposition to the district’s pay-for-performance teacher compensation plan in the late 2000s. That negotiation brought him national attention, a consultant job in Ohio and then a call from Branstad in late 2010, asking him to help develop, and sell, education reform in the state.

Even then, Glass knew it wasn’t a long-term gig. Over a cup of coffee in the basement of the Capitol building in February 2011, Glass confided his job was to be the “lightning rod” for the governor’s agenda: Push the plan, take the heat and get out before he wore out his welcome.

If he’s a rainmaker, Glass says, Iowa now needs a playmaker. That’s someone who will move the policy for the next several years.

For Glass, who leaves Iowa on Friday, his family bigger by two (daughter Norah is 1 1/2 years old; son Chase is 3 months) from when he arrived 30 months ago, it seems to have worked out just so.

“You couldn’t have planned it like that, for some conspiracy theorists to think you’d have the ability to orchestrate all that would just be crazy,” he said. “It would.”


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