Nothing says "not serious about giving Iowa kids a world-class education" than putting the needs of the tourism industry ahead of what's best for student learning. But Governor Terry Branstad sounds ready to do just that.
Branstad enthusiastically signed the education reform bill earlier this month, suggesting that Iowa is on the verge of transformational change: "Having good schools is no longer good enough."
At his regular weekly press conference today, Branstad discussed a different education controversy. Iowa law currently stipulates that K-12 schools should begin the academic year the week of September 1, but almost all the school districts in the state receive waivers from the state Department of Education to start earlier.
"I believe the Department of Ed is intending to move forward with new rules that would change this policy," Branstad says. "I believe the present policy has been too lax and has not been fair to the tourism industry in Iowa."
The tourism industry argues they lose millions when schools start early, as families stop traveling and teenagers quit their summer jobs at the swimming pool, resort or ice cream shop.
During the 2012 legislative session, Branstad expressed support for a bill that would have prohibited waivers to school districts seeking to start the academic year before the week of September 1. That bill passed the Iowa House over the objection of Republican Greg Forristall, who commented,
"I'm chair of the House Education Committee and we've fought this for six years now and no self-respecting chair of education is going to put commerce in front of the education needs of children," Forristall says. "I think this bill is an embarassment."
I doubt it's a coincidence that Iowa House leaders didn't put Forristall in charge of the Education Committee for the 2013 session.
In any event, the Democratic-controlled Iowa Senate did not act on the early school start date bill last year. More than a year ago, Branstad floated the idea of changing the Department of Education's policy on granting waivers, but he never moved forward. I don't know whether he was waiting to see whether Republicans could win control of the Iowa Senate in the 2012 elections, whether he hesitated after hearing from many Iowans who advocated a longer school year, or whether Department of Education Director Jason Glass discouraged the governor from restricting the waivers. Glass may have been familiar with the wealth of research suggesting that students forget a lot of what they've learned over long summer breaks. He has resigned as the state department director in order to become superintendent of the
Eagle Grove Community schools in Colorado.
Speaking to reporters today, Branstad asserted that the educational research supports his position.
"Frankly, all of the studies and statistics that I've seen show that having an earlier start date has not improved academic achievement," he said, noting that surrounding states that have much later fall school start dates have outpaced Iowa in student performance measures.
I would like to know when the states Branstad mentioned (Minnesota, Michigan, and Wisconsin) end their academic year. In many states, public schools don't let out for summer until almost the end of June. Advocates for Iowa's hotel and travel industry want a full ten weeks of summer vacation for school-aged kids.
I also find it interesting that yet again, as seen on several important issues since Branstad returned to the governor's office, his policies go against the interests of local authorities. The Republican Party of Iowa used to be all about "local control," especially in education. When 340 out of 348 school districts seek to start the school year before the week of September 1, you might assume they have valid reasons. Yet Branstad has concluded that officials in all those school districts are wrong and should defer to the needs of Iowa's tourism industry.
Given the delays built into the administrative rule-making process, any new Department of Education policy on school start dates would not affect the coming academic year. However, school districts might be forced to abandon mid- to late-August start dates for the 2014/2015 academic year.