Conservatives slam Branstad's education reform plan for Iowa

When State Department of Education Director Jason Glass and Governor Terry Branstad’s senior education adviser Linda Fandel rolled out an education reform blueprint last month, I had a feeling the proposals wouldn’t sit well with many Republicans. A new “report card” for a conservative advocacy organization gives the reform plan a barely passing grade.

The Branstad administration’s education reform blueprint can be downloaded here (pdf). Bleeding Heartland summarized the main points here.

Three Iowa conservatives wrote the report card for the American Principles Project, a 501(c)3 organization “dedicated to preserving and propagating the fundamental principles on which our country was founded.” The main authors were Shane Vander Hart and Eric Goranson, with William Gustoff contributing some material. According to today’s Caffeinated Thoughts post on the report card, “Eric Goranson and Shane Vander Hart serve with American Principles Project Iowa. William R. Gustoff is with the Iowa Educational Freedom Alliance and a member of American Principles Project’s Iowa Advisory Board.”

Vander Hart writes frequently about education at the Caffeinated Thoughts blog. Goranson is a lobbyist and advocate for parochial schools and home-schooling organizations. Branstad appointed him to the State Board of Education earlier this year. Goranson has published several critiques of the Iowa Core Curriculum. Gustoff is a partner in the Des Moines law firm Whitaker Hagenow, home to various rising Republican stars. Branstad nominated Gustoff to serve on the State Judicial Nominating Commission, but the Iowa Senate did not confirm him to that position.

Here is the eight-page report card that gave Branstad’s education reform blueprint an overall D+ grade:

The authors graded each main section of the reform blueprint on four criteria: “parental involvement/parental rights, respect for local control, the impact on non-public options, and the common sense ‘smell test.'”

They gave a C- to the “centerpiece” reform proposals relating to teachers and principals. Branstad’s administration wants major changes in the prevailing teacher pay structure, as well as new ways to recruit, evaluate and mentor teachers. The American Principles Project authors don’t like “a one-size-fits-all pay scale” and “are concerned that it will further burden the state budget.” They don’t care for a “factory model” for teacher preparation, although they think a new teacher evaluation program “has great potential.” They give an A+ grade to the blueprint’s call for “alternative teacher certification.”

The report gives a C- to the blueprint’s proposals on improving the Iowa Core Curriculum and changing the standardized tests that currently evaluate student performance. The authors link to past reports alleging that the core curriculum “exposes our children to indoctrination and bias” and was developed through an “undemocratic and unconstitutional process.” They also criticize Glass for putting a high priority on “keeping federal funds flowing to preserve the size of the Iowa Department of Education.” They call on Iowa lawmakers to repeal the core curriculum and “in its place develop a simple, yet rigorous, set of state standards that allow for local control to meet the needs of students in different settings.”

Side note: the authors appear to be contradicting themselves when they endorse “rigorous” state standards while also making a fetish of “local control” in education. A professional educator recently told me that not many years ago, more than 60 Iowa school districts allowed students to receive a high school diploma with only one year of math instruction. Standards that weak don’t serve students’ interests and are the main reason the Iowa Core Curriculum was adopted.

Back to the report card: the American Principles Project authors like the proposed changes to testing students and “ending social promotion in the elementary years.” They like the idea of giving high-scoring schools and school districts “earned autonomy,” and would like Iowa’s private schools to be “first in line” to receive “that level of respect and autonomy.”

The blueprint’s section on innovation in schools received a D grade. The authors want Iowa to be open to private as well as public online education vendors, and they are disappointed that “school choice” is not in Branstad’s plan:

The Blueprint, in its current form, continues the “escape-of-you’re-rich” model of education that tells parents you have one (or perhaps limited) choice based on your income and your zip code. That is immoral and flies in the face of our basic American principles. […] Sectarian, non-sectarian, homeschool and homeschool assistance programs, magnet schools, charter schools, virtual schools, open enrollment, dual enrollment, and other options should be on the table for every Iowan regardless of the parent’s income or zip code.

The authors don’t like the state’s system for accrediting private schools and believe schools should be able to choose third-party accreditation.

The report card gave a grade of “incomplete” for financial considerations, because Branstad’s team hasn’t put a price tag on the reform plans, even though many of the proposals would cost additional money.

Finally, the authors gave Branstad’s reform blueprint a D+ for timeline, because the plans would be phased in over a decade. They point to Indiana, where Republican Governor Mitch Daniels enacted major education reform and school choice in a single year.

The report card assigns an overall D+ grade to the blueprint because it “tries too hard to thread the political needle” as opposed to empowering parents, changing how public school dollars are spent and removing red tape that now keeps principals from doing their jobs well.

There is much emphasis on accountability in the Blueprint. Accountability is good–but not to Federal bureaucrats. We believe modifying the Blueprint to reject the overreach of the federal government into education and focusing solely on common-sense reforms that give parents and children true choice and ownership will create a system that is adaptive and nimble. These changes would allow the system to better respond to the demands and needs of its primary customers–Iowa’s parents and students.

Branstad would like his education reform agenda to be a major focus of the 2012 legislative session, but a D+ grade from a conservative advocacy organization won’t help his cause in the Republican-controlled Iowa House. Other aspects of the reform blueprint will face strong resistance in the Iowa Senate, where Democrats have more power.

I will update this post if Branstad, Glass, or Fandel respond to the American Principles Project’s assessment of the education reform plans. Share any relevant thoughts in this thread.

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