Federal education grant summons ghost of labor bill past

UPDATE: The Iowa House passed this bill on a party-line vote on Friday, and Culver signed it the same day.

Democratic state legislators are rushing to pass a bill that will allow Iowa to apply for a federal education grant of up to $175 million. The application is due on Tuesday, and Monday is Martin Luther King Jr. day, so Governor Chet Culver needs to be able to sign the bill this weekend.

The Iowa Senate approved Senate File 2033 on Wednesday. Senate Education Committee Chair Becky Schmitz summarized key provisions relating to the “Race to the Top” grant:

Specifically, the legislation before you today will:

   *     Remove the cap and repeal date for charter schools in Iowa.  Currently, Iowa Code has a 20 charter school cap and a repeal date for all charter schools on July 1, 2011.  […]

   *     Allow schools to develop Innovation Zone Schools and Consortiums -This legislation adds innovation zone schools and consortiums to the ways that schools districts can foster innovation in more schools.

Senate Republicans voted against this bill, and House Republicans will do the same when it’s considered today. They want to see Iowa relax current restrictions on who can operate a charter school. Additionally, they argue that it’s unwise to apply for one-time federal funds to support ongoing education expenses. The GOP talking point of choice is to call this bill “Race for the Cash.”

Republicans also claim the bill would shift authority toward “union bosses” because of provisions that are not directly linked to the federal grant application. More on that story is after the jump.

In her opening statement to the Iowa Senate on Wednesday, Schmitz explained other aspects of SF 2033:

Included in the legislation, but an issue outside of the Race to the Top application, is the subject of persistently lowest achieving schools, also known as PLAS.

The Federal Government requires states to identify 5 percent of its school buildings as PLAs.  For these 35 identified schools in 18 schools districts across Iowa, the Federal Government will provide up to $18 million in additional funding to increase student achievement.  To receive the additional school improvement funding, the Federal Government will require that schools must adopt one of four models of intervention.

Legislation provides local school districts with the ability to decide locally which, if any, of the four models they will utilize to turn around their schools and draw down additional federal money.  Local school administration and teachers will mutually agree on which of the four intervention models they will use to access the federal money available to them.

This approach is supported by federal guidelines.  U.S. Department of Education materials regarding this initiative state that “drawing upon pockets of success in cities and State across the country, the Secretary believes LEAs (local school districts) and unions can work together to bring about dramatic, positive changes in our persistently lowest-achieving schools.

Accordingly, the Department encourages collaborations and partnerships between LEAs (local school districts) and teacher unions and teacher membership associations to resolve issues created by school intervention models in the context of existing collective bargaining agreements.”

I don’t see why teachers’ unions shouldn’t be included in stakeholder discussions on how to turn schools around, but organizations representing school boards disagree. The Iowa Association of School Boards has advised its members not to sign a statement supporting Iowa’s application for Race to the Top funds. The Des Moines Register reports today,

School board presidents in Cedar Rapids, Council Bluffs, Davenport, Des Moines, Dubuque, Sioux City and Waterloo ignored a state deadline Thursday for school board leaders to sign on to the school-reform effort. […]

[Des Moines school board president Connie] Boesen and others oppose legislation that would force school boards to negotiate with teacher unions on steps to overhaul the state’s most troubled schools – many of which are in Iowa’s largest cities.[…]

“This legislation has expanded collective bargaining into this process, and these boards simply don’t agree with that,” said Lew Finch, who lobbies for eight school districts that make up the Urban Education Network of Iowa. […]

Finch said Iowa City school leaders wanted to withdraw their board president’s signature Thursday but were not allowed to.

The other board presidents Finch represents will reconsider if state lawmakers strip the controversial language from the bill, he said.

Some legislators may try to remove this language from the bill in the Iowa House today, but it’s not clear whether the Iowa Senate could approve a new version in time.

This dispute reminded me of the collective bargaining bill the Iowa legislature passed in 2008. That bill would have increased the issues public employee unions could negotiate, and the Iowa Association of School Boards was among its vocal opponents. Culver eventually vetoed that bill, and organized labor advocates were furious.

The collective bargaining provisions in the current education bill are much narrower, relating only to teachers’ unions and affecting only a small percentage of Iowa schools. Nevertheless, the controversy may weaken Iowa’s grant application. According to the Register, states need a “significant” share of school board presidents to support their applications in order to be eligible for the Race to the Top funds. It’s not clear how many school board presidents signed a statement of support before the Iowa Association of School Boards sounded the alarm.

Any thoughts on education policy or collective bargaining are welcome in this thread.

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