Branstad to leave preschool program alone for now

Governor Terry Branstad won't push for major changes in the state's universal voluntary preschool program for four-year-olds during the next two years, according to Iowa Department of Education Director Jason Glass. While taping Iowa Public Television's "Iowa Press" program on July 28, Glass said the governor had decided "to move past this debate" on whether preschool should be universal or targeted to needy families. Branstad's communications director Tim Albrecht confirmed to Mike Wiser the same day,

"Now that preschool funding is in place, Gov. Branstad does not believe a preschool funding debate should overshadow a meaningful debate on how to again make Iowa's schools the best in the country," Albrecht wrote in a follow-up email. "Now that Gov. Branstad has allocated funding for preschool over the next two years, he does not desire this settled issue to get in the way of our education reform goals."

That is the smartest thing Branstad has done all week.  

During the 2010 gubernatorial campaign, Branstad repeatedly bashed the preschool program as unaffordable. The draft budget he submitted to state legislators envisioned slashing state funding for preschool and targeting grants to needy families. Branstad was unmoved when Iowa House and Senate Democrats signaled that preschool was a top priority, and when the Iowa State Board of Education formally asked him to leave the preschool program alone. However, the Democratic-controlled Iowa Senate blocked attempts by House Republicans to eliminate preschool and voted again and again to preserve the current funding mechanism. The compromise education budget finally approved in late June reduced appropriations for preschool but maintained the universal program.

During the two-day Iowa Education Summit the Branstad administration convened in Des Moines this week, several experts emphasized the importance of early childhood education. Branstad didn't mention preschool in his closing remarks to the summit. When journalists asked him on July 26 whether the guest speakers had influenced his stand on needs-based versus universal preschool, he acknowledged hearing the comments but "would not say if he had changed his view on the [preschool] funding."

Saving universal preschool is the right thing to do for Iowa children, but it's also a pragmatic move. Branstad's administration, led by Glass and the governor's education adviser Linda Fandel, will spend the next several months drafting an education reform package to submit to the Iowa legislature by January 2012. Every politician can endorse the goals Branstad outlined this week: "raising achievement for all students," "helping teachers be more effective," "raising academic standards," and providing "a more personalized education." No one is likely to object to Branstad's new executive order creating an advisory council to improve science, technology, engineering and mathematics education in Iowa (full text in pdf here).

But other parts of the Branstad package will need heavy lifting to make it through the state legislature. Some kind of performance pay initiative will certainly be part of the recommendations; Glass is best known for implementing a performance-based teacher compensation system in Eagle Grove, Colorado a few years ago. Given how important "school choice" has become to many conservative activists, some kind of voucher program will probably be included too. Although Glass has pledged to collaborate with teachers' unions, as with other stakeholders, Branstad signaled that he'll take on the union by inviting combative New Jersey Governor Chris Christie to speak at the Iowa summit. Christie delivered a political (as opposed to research-based) speech, summarized here by New Jersey journalist John Mooney.

Branstad can count on the Republican-controlled Iowa house to back anything teachers' unions hate, but some GOP legislators may rebel against his call to strengthen academic standards statewide. The Iowa Core Curriculum adopted in 2008 has become a punching bag for conservative activists, who think it promotes secular indoctrination and increases the already excessive (in their view) government influence over what kids learn.

For that reason, Branstad will need statehouse Democrats and their traditional allies to get behind some of his education reform proposals. Democratic legislators may be open to ideas geared toward improving teacher compensation, increasing time for professional development, and/or moving toward more personalized learning for students. To give an example, at the end of this post I enclose State Senator Rob Hogg's comments about the education summit. Hogg has been one of Branstad's loudest critics on a range of issues, but he came away from the summit "excited about what we can do to elevate Iowa's students to even higher levels of learning." The state's largest teacher's union, the Iowa State Education Association, endorsed Democrat Chet Culver in the 2010 gubernatorial race and will surely oppose some Branstad proposals, especially if Republicans revive efforts to limit collective bargaining by public employees. On the other hand, the teacher's union was among the lead sponsors at this week's summit. Some kind of buy-in from the ISEA would improve Branstad's chances of getting his reforms through the Iowa Senate.

Before the education summit convened, Todd Dorman of the Cedar Rapids Gazette gave Branstad wise counsel:

[New Jersey Governor] Christie made 2011 the year of education reform. In April, he outlined ambitious reforms fundamentally changing how teachers are evaluated and paid, with ratings based in large part on student performance.

Christie did get major public pension changes through the Democratic Legislature, ironically, with the help of Democratic Party bosses. On the heels of that win, Christie thanked Democrats by using line-item vetoes to ax their budget priorities. Senate President Steve Sweeney dubbed him a "rotten (rhymes with trick)," as heartless as old man Potter. Sweeney told the Newark Star-Ledger that he'll now block many of Christie's school reforms. [...]

I hope our "new sheriff in town" governor doesn't swagger down the Christie path to winning friends and influencing people. [...]

Branstad may get only one shot at this. Before he opts to go to war, he needs to ask himself if he's got a better chance fixing public schools with shared Statehouse control in January, or with a possible Tea-partying, slash-and-burn Legislature in 2013.

Branstad should have listened to that advice, but instead, on July 27 he vetoed a a tax break for hundreds of thousands of working households and language intended to keep Iowa Workforce Development field offices open. It was the second time Branstad used his item veto to take the Democrats' top tax policy priority out of a compromise bill. I guarantee that the governor just increased the chances that his education reforms will get no further in 2012 than his preschool proposal did in 2011.

Branstad needs to show Democrats that he can negotiate with them in good faith. Why should the Iowa Senate pass any education reform package if the governor's going to turn around and veto the biggest concession senators got at the bargaining table? Promising to leave universal preschool for four-year-olds in place won't undo the damage from this week's vetoes, but it's an important gesture.

Any comments about education policy are welcome in this thread.

P.S.- I recommend reading Scott McLeod's reflections on the Iowa education summit. Iowa Public Television posted videos of several speeches, including Stanford University Professor Linda Darling-Hammond's. McLeod wrote that she was "the crowd favorite by far." Mooney covered highlights from her speech here.

From State Senator Rob Hogg's e-mail update of July 28:

I was skeptical about the "education summit" that Governor Branstad convened in Des Moines earlier this week. Listening to the political leaders who spoke at the event (Education Secretary Arne Duncan, former Governor Jim Hunt of North Carolina, Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey, and Governor Branstad himself), my skepticism was confirmed. To be blunt, none of them had any idea what is actually happening in Iowa schools.

But then, after the television cameras left and the only speakers were education experts, the "summit" turned from lemons into lemonade.

Prof. Linda Darling-Hammond from Stanford argued that teachers need more time for collaboration, preparation, and evaluation of students-at least 50 hours of professional development during the course of a school year.

Pasi Sahlberg of Finland showed how his country gives teachers higher pay relative to other college degree holders, and lower student loads, so that the highest-quality teachers can spend the time working with students.

Fred Bramante of New Hampshire explained how his state had adopted community learning opportunities and competency-based instruction-"any time, any place, any pace"-to engage the entire community in education and to cut New Hampshire's drop-out rate from 25% to 4%.

Vivien Stewart of the Asia Society showed how China had transformed its schools as a catalyst for economic development by extending the school year, building modern schools, adding math and science teachers to its elementary schools, and sending millions of students to college for advanced degrees.

Finally, the national teacher of the year from Iowa, Sara Brown Wessling, made the case for why we need less standardized testing and more personalized learning for our students, so that we can move each student forward from where he or she enters the classroom.

As a result of the summit, I am excited about what we can do to elevate Iowa's students to even higher levels of learning. We cannot cut our way to educational excellence-or "fire our way to Finland," as one speaker said-but we can provide the training, the professional development, the resources, and the community support we need for world-class schools.

Login or Join to comment and post.