Property tax plans and highlights from Branstad's legislative speech

Governor Terry Branstad delivers his "Condition of the State" address to the Iowa House and Senate this morning. Iowa Public Television will livestream the speech here, and I'll update this post later with highlights. The governor's commercial property tax reform plan will be a centerpiece of the address. As part of that plan, Branstad indicated yesterday that he will seek unprecedented limits on local government taxing authority in Iowa.

UPDATE: A few details from the governor's proposed budget are now below, along with some reaction from Democratic lawmakers. Branstad is asking for a significant spending increase in the 2013 fiscal year.

Lynn Campbell of covered Branstad's comments about property taxes at his weekly press conference on January 9:

He told reporters Monday that he will again call for a rollback on commercial and industrial property taxes from 100 percent to 60 percent of valuation. But this year, he's calling for it to happen over eight years, rather than five years. Branstad's plan also would limit residential and agricultural property tax increases to 2 percent, rather than the current 4 percent. And it would limit city and county property tax increases to the rate of inflation. [...]

The governor has said that Iowans would see their property taxes increase by $1.3 billion during the next five years, if lawmakers don't approve property-tax reform. The estimate was based on the assumption that local governments would increase their tax levies each year by the 4 percent maximum permitted by state law.

Local government leaders last year decried the Republican plan to reduce property taxes, saying it would be "crippling" and would lead to service reductions, layoffs and increased tax rates.

Linda Hinton, government relations manager for the Iowa State Association of Counties, said Monday that county officials once again are wary of property-tax reform, and especially concerned about the proposal to cap residential and agricultural property-tax increases at 2 percent. [...]

Branstad said he has worked with local governments to alleviate their concerns. Under his plan, the state would reimburse a portion of the tax revenue loss by local governments - $50 million the first year, then $100 million, then $150 million.

"We foresee that we're going to be able to protect local governments," Branstad said.

The governor also said the state is willing to provide cities and counties some relief from unfunded mandates by the state, such as housing military prisoners for free and requiring written reports instead of electronic ones. A report by county officials identified nearly 1,300 state mandates on county officials.

I'm impressed Branstad was able to deliver that last line with a straight face, as if ending obscure mandates like those targeted in a new Republican bill would have anywhere near the impact on local budgets as slashing commercial property taxes would.

Tuesday's edition of the Des Moines Register published more details about and reaction to Branstad's plan.

The maximum amount of property taxes a local government would be able to collect under the governor's plan would be the amount set in the fiscal year that begins July 1, 2013, multiplied in future years by an annual growth factor set by the state. To spend more, local governments would need to obtain approval from voters in a special election, and the approval would be limited to two years.

A separate House version introduced Monday by Republicans, House Study Bill 500, would also limit local government budget growth, but the tax relief for commercial and industrial businesses would be spread over 14 years rather than the eight years proposed by the governor.

Local officials' objections rest on the principle of home rule, which refers to the power of a city or county to set its own system of government without undue state restrictions.

"I think the Legislature is wrong in trying to direct local governments in what they do," said Senate Majority Whip Tom Courtney, D-Burlington. "Local governments should be able to tax and spend for what they need to do, and they are directly accountable to the people in their communities."

Many Iowa lawmakers served as city or county officials before being elected to the legislature, so I expect huge resistance to the Branstad approach, especially in the Democratic-controlled Senate. Bleeding Heartland has argued before that Branstad's disregard for local government authority was one of the most under-reported stories in Iowa politics last year. Not only did he seek to limit local governments' taxing powers, he issued an executive order limiting local governments' use of project labor agreements and leaned on the city of Cedar Rapids to set aside one such agreement, signed before he was inaugurated.

Majority Leader Mike Gronstal indicated in his opening remarks yesterday that Democrats are committed to property tax reform modeled on the plan that cleared the upper chamber with bipartisan support last year. Excerpt from Gronstal's January 9 speech:

Here are my top three priorities.

One, help Iowa businesses create jobs by cutting commercial property taxes.

Last year, Senate Democrats and Senate Republicans put aside partisan bickering when we voted to cut property taxes IN HALF for four out of five businesses.

It is the only proposal that does not simply shift more of the cost of local schools and local services onto the backs of homeowners and farmers.  That's because the Senate's property tax is paid for.

Most importantly, the Senate's property tax cut focuses the help on the people who need it, Iowa's small and Main Street businesses.  That's why it passed the Senate on an overwhelmingly bipartisan vote of 46 to 4.

Now's the time to help create jobs in Iowa by cutting commercial property taxes.  

Governor Branstad and members of the Iowa House,  the Democratic and Republican members of the Iowa Senate are ready to help you get it done.

I'll add updates from Branstad's address later today. Meanwhile, share any comments about his speech or policy agenda in this thread.

UPDATE: The governor's draft budget would spend a little more than $6.2 billion from the state's general fund during the 2013 fiscal year, which runs from July 1, 2012 to June 30, 2013. That's a 3.8 percent increase in general fund spending, compared to the current fiscal year. A large part of the extra $230 million would go toward education reform proposals summarized here. Branstad also wants $25 million for a "High Quality Jobs Program"; sounds like corporate welfare, but I haven't seen the details yet.

Last year Branstad's first budget proposal staked out a middle ground on spending; higher than what Iowa House Republicans sought, but lower than the initial spending bills Senate Democrats approved. Branstad later adopted the House Republican stand on spending levels, even as state revenue forecasts improved. The current-year budget allocates about $5.99 billion in general fund spending.

In this morning's Condition of the State speech, Branstad stood by his proposal to hold back third-graders who can't pass a reading test, saying, "Because reading is so essential for later success in school, it 's just unfair to promote an illiterate child." I hope legislators don't go along with that idea. As educator Scott McLeod argued here,

Failing 3rd graders who can't pass some reading assessment is a really, really bad idea. It doesn't matter how many safeguards and second chances there are and I understand why the policy is being proposed (both educationally and politically). The bottom line is that, regardless of the 'social promotion' rhetoric and whatever gut intuition parents or policymakers may have, the research evidence is overwhelmingly unidirectional that in-grade retention does far more harm than good. Desired test score increases often never materialize and, even if they do, they usually don't persist past a few years. One of the stronger and consistent findings in educational research is that, in the long run, in-grade retention is at best a long-term wash score-wise and the resultant negative impact on students' psyches and their likelihood to graduate is horrific.

Kathie Obradovich reported that many members of the public were denied entry to hear Branstad's speech, because the governor reserved most of Iowa House gallery seating for a hand-picked audience.

O.Kay Henderson reported on early Democratic reaction to Branstad's speech.

[Senate Ways and Means Committee Chair Joe] Bolkcom says he's "open" to Branstad's ideas, including new proposals to reduce taxes on companies that supply components to larger manufacturers, like John Deere. [...]

While Democrats are raising questions about one idea - ending "social promotion" of third-graders if they can't read - Senate Democratic Leader Mike Gronstal is also striking a conciliatory tone.

"I think his stuff on education, in particular the early grades of assessing reading abilities and then doing interventions, I think there's broad support for that," Gronstal says. "I think we're really committed to doing something on commercial property tax."

Yet Gronstal pointed out the plan Democrats devised last year would provide more direct relief to a small business owner Branstad cited during his speech. Democrats are also raising concerns about details in Branstad's budget plan, specifically his call to shift some education spending around to pay for some of his proposed education reforms.

"Part of the money is coming from teacher quality...and that goes into (teacher) pay. Part of the money is coming from classroom size money...Research show next to a good teacher, (reduced) class size is one of the best things we can do for kids," says Representative Sharon Steckman of Mason City, the top-ranking Democrat on the House Education Committee. "...It's kind of like a shell game. You just move that money around."

Other Democrats say Branstad hasn't set aside enough money to cover the state's increased share of paying for mental health care for the poor.

State Representative Tyler Olson, the ranking Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee, released the following statement:

"House Democrats are encouraged by the Governor's focus in his budget on job creation and improving our schools. We are ready to work with the Governor and Republicans this session to help create jobs.

House Democrats will also oppose any effort to weaken the middle class or reward Wall Street over Iowa's Main Street businesses.

In these tough economic times when many Iowans - including veterans returning from service overseas are looking for work, we're disappointed the Governor has no plan to reopen the workforce centers. We are committed to reopening the centers that will help Iowans learn new skills to land a good-paying job and help local businesses find workers."

The 36 field offices that Iowa Workforce Development closed last year are never coming back, but Olson's comment is another sign that the issue will live on in competitive Iowa House and Senate races this fall.

SECOND UPDATE: posted the full transcript of Branstad's condition of the state address. Here are more details on the governor's budget. General fund spending for fiscal year 2013 would be $6.244 billion, which is equal to 96 percent of projected state revenues. Of the $230 million in additional spending, $25 million would cover the costs of education reform in the coming fiscal year. Some  $17 million of that would be new appropriations, while $8 million would be shifted from existing state education programs. Lynn Campbell reports,

The governor also proposed $40 to $60 million in savings from the Road Use Tax Fund, rather than increasing the gas tax.

While Branstad proposed a casino tax increase last year, he does not propose any tax or fee increases this year.

Speaking to Des Moines Register staff on January 10, Branstad confirmed that he will not reopen the debate over Iowa's universal voluntary preschool program for four-year-olds. He is open to a gasoline tax increase, as long as it doesn't take effect in the 2013 fiscal year:

Branstad said he would not support increasing Iowa's gasoline tax in the fiscal year that starts July 1 since he believes the state's short-term road needs will be covered through government efficiencies.

The state's transportation department is expected to outline between $40 million and $60 million in proposed saving next week that would be diverted to road improvements.

"If we get the savings approved first, then, yeah, I think I'd consider that," Branstad said to a question about raising the gas tax in outgoing years. [...]

Branstad on a radio show last year said he couldn't support a gasoline tax increase in the upcoming year. Today was the first time he has indicated a willingness to consider a gasoline tax in this year's legislative session, but he specified his support would be for outgoing years, not this coming fiscal year.

[Iowa Senate Transportation Committee Chair Tom] Rielly said he believes the governor's latest statements will lead to a serious legislative discussion on the issue.  Setting the increase to begin in outgoing years is something Rielly said he would be willing to work with the governor on since it would allow the state to find a long-term solution.

"The governor has reopened the door, and that's a good thing," Rielly said. "I think it's good that we continue to let the process work. At the end of the day we all agree that we want safe roads, we want to put people to work, and we want to have people outside of Iowa paying their fair share."

  • It's not either,or

    I hope legislators don't go along with that idea. As educator Scott McLeod argued here,

    McLeod is careful to only discuss "findings" with respect to in-grade retention. The fact of the matter is that both retention and social promotion are undesirable as solutions. Additionally, relying on statistical arguments comparing the two is suspect. Students who have been retained can be identified and tracked, but it's far more difficult to reliably identify cases of social promotion as one relies on self-reporting by school systems.

    Are you really a supporter of social promotion? Social promotion is a manifestation of the "graded" system that was introduced to manage growing urban schools after the Industrial Revolution. It's factory learning. Unsurprisingly, the retention v. social promotion "argument" is associated with the management of urban schools.

    You comment favorably on the Montessori elementary school in your area. Why is it that in this system, the mixed-age classroom is seen as a positive for socialization/self-esteem that allows for different developmental rates whereas it's a self-esteem issue to hold kids back who can't read?

    Branstad's statement is not incorrect, technically speaking. No reasonable person could disagree.

    Because reading is so essential for later success in school, it 's just unfair to promote an illiterate child.

    This is why public opinion is overwhelmingly on his side. On its face, no argument. We probably all agree that a child who cannot read in the third grade has little chance in life without serious intervention to correct the situation. Retention is not the solution either, because it lacks the targeting necessary to be successful. Or, as McLeod points out, the successes are short-term in nature.

    "I think his stuff on education, in particular the early grades of assessing reading abilities and then doing interventions, I think there's broad support for that," Gronstal says.

    If Branstad/Gronstal are suggesting real (funded) intervention to target students who lack basic skills at a critical age like third grade, then it's worth a listen, at least. However, it doesn't end there. The likely reason successes are short-term for retention or retention + intervention is because kids in lower-income areas don't see any benefit to investing time/attention in a model that will produce no benefit to them, and often, parent(s) may feel the same way. In these neighborhoods, the educational system must be viewed as a viable path to mobility in early adulthood, which is not the case now.

    Anyone who is interested on how social promotion actually works in urban areas should watch Season 4 of The Wire, filmed on location in Baltimore.

    In some urbanized minority areas, parents have written off the public school system. As the subject of primary challenges to incumbents has been frequently raised here, I'll mention that Ben Cardin has drawn a credible challenger in MD-Sen's Democratic primary, a state senator from a majority-minority county who also happens to be an advocate for government-issued private school vouchers for poorer families in MD. In other words, he's to the right of Branstad. He has made "because I'm black" a plank of his campaign, which is not uncommon in the state, or other states with an appreciable number of non-white Democrats.

    I am not a fan of govt-issued private school vouchers, but I can understand the argument when poorer areas have "factory" schools over which largely affluent white politicians argue in paternalistic tones over application of two inadequate policy extremes. Meanwhile, in some of the nicer areas, there's access to public schools where mixed age classrooms and differing developmental rates are supported, not considered a social stigma, and funded by other taxpayers. If I were a parent in a lousy public school district, funds to send my kid to private school option would seem like manna from heaven. The opportunities for long-term success are greatly enhanced in an environment where education as a model for success in society is at least made credible.

    • of course serious intervention

      with adequate funding to help kids who can't read is all good. I don't think any educator is for "social promotion" without giving kids extra help to be able to read/compute at grade level. I just don't think the kids should automatically be held back if they haven't improved enough over summer school.

      I'm glad to see that Branstad has pretty much given up on eliminating state-funded preschool for four-year-olds. That's one of the last things you should cut if you care about literacy in the early grades.

      It's not as encouraging to see that he partly funds the education reforms by reducing funding for a program designed to keep class sizes manageable. If you put too many kids in a classroom, there's a better chance that some will slip through the cracks without learning what they need to learn.

      I would love to see more mixed-age public education in Iowa. In that setting there is a lot less stigma for an older child doing work with younger classmates, and I hope the state "innovation" funds support experiments in that direction as well as technology in the classrooms.

      • avoiding the issue

        I assume when we see hard details, the Iowa plan will be based on the FL plan. Florida does fund remedial summer school with a re-test at the end of the summer, which does give the students an opportunity to advance.

        I don't assume that Branstad/Republicans will allow for adequate funding, not with the rhetoric I've been hearing. I believe I've read that FL has had to spend more than advertised.

        The question is this: what if the student fails again in the summer? Social promotion or retention?

        You are promoting the position of one person -- I've seen the cite three times now. His position is clear. He is at one end of the spectrum -- this is not a new argument, and positions are well-defined. He advances that retention poses self-esteem issues and that retention has not shown long-term benefits. Most in his corner rely on carefully stating that "no current research shows ..." Yes, the FL reforms are too recent, as are Chicago, etc. Those who ended the social promotion policy did so late 90s/early 2000s, or some school systems have not been sufficiently consistent.

        FL is making big claims on the short-term results, both in reading and esp math. Time will tell if this holds up. FL advocates also claim that parents are getting more involved now that they know that their child isn't going to get a free pass into the next grade. Again, time will tell. If you are aware of more recent studies, please inform.

        Where I question your position, which you align with McLeod's is how one can argue both that it is imperative to keep a child w/ his peer group while championing mixed-age environments. Or, I happen to agree with Linda Fandel that reading is critical. I have questions about how you can advance a kid when obviously, the reading material is at an even higher level in the next grade. What I would ask is how can one advocate for the importance of pre-school while at the same time saying that it's ok to advance a child w/o adequate reading skills into the next grade where he'll be hopelessly lost. All of a sudden, early education is less important.

        One area where we are in definite disagreement is your statement that educators don't practice social promotion w/o offering lots of extra help. As mentioned above, statistical reports should be reviewed w/ a critical eye because it is more difficult to identify those who moved along due to social promotion. IIRC, there is no federal reporting requirement.

        At one time, I volunteered to work on lesson plans/demos in science for students at an alternative (public) high school. These kids were the products of social promotion, and this represented (realistically) a last chance to get a hs degree. They were also separated into an alternative track to pull them out of the "achievement" statistics for mainstream public schools. (FL advocates may have a point when they say that it is a small fraction of students that impact statistics associated w/ retention -- worth considering.) This school had as many security officers and parole (yes, I said parole) officers on staff as they did teachers. The #1 thing I heard was "what's this b___s____ have to do with me?" Tough question to answer. I can't say that I'm bullish on the idea of somehow getting these kids (now hardened young adults) up to speed after years of social promotion, which, frankly, was utilized just to move them up and out of the system.

        I am (very) cautiously supportive of what Branstad or Branstad/Gronstal present and am open-minded that it may be necessary to enact a soft ban on social promotion for the reforms to work (particularly if students/parents taking them seriously is at stake). What I mean by "soft" ban is that Linda Fandel has described retention as the option of last resort, and this is important. Where I'm not supportive is if efforts are sabotaged on day one by inadequate funding. I can't agree, however, with the reflexively negative attitudes expressed by McLeod and some Democrats that have gone on the record.  

        • I have talked with lots of educators

          about the Branstad proposals over the past few months. Consensus view seems to be: mixed bag, some good ideas, some lousy (retaining large numbers of third graders mentioned by many in this context), too focused on testing to measure outcomes as opposed to improving teaching methods, unlikely to be backed up with the kind of funding needed to make real progress.

          Currently, not enough extra help is available for kids who are behind in reading and other subjects. You are correct, some kids are getting moved along without the tutoring or mentoring they need. I meant that educators would support strong, fully-funded programs to address that problem. Instead, Iowa will get a high-stakes test and some (probably not enough) intervention for kids who fail.

          I am a fan of mixed-age classroom environments, and I would like to see more Iowa schools try that model. Socially, there is a big difference between being part of the older cohort in a mixed-age classroom, where every room in the school is like that, and being one of the "dumb kids" forced to repeat third grade. Retention may be an appropriate tool as a truly "last resort," but that is not the vibe I'm getting from Branstad.

          • vibes

            Socially, there is a big difference between being part of the older cohort in a mixed-age classroom, where every room in the school is like that, and being one of the "dumb kids" forced to repeat third grade. Retention may be an appropriate tool as a truly "last resort," but that is not the vibe I'm getting from Branstad.

            You become the "dumb kid" when the de facto policy is social promotion, don't you think? I believe (correct me if I'm wrong), that in Iowa currently, social promotion is heavily favored.

            That said, my impression is that the Branstad/Glass/Fandel approach is at least intended to be in line with the Clinton admnistration's guide for ending social promotion while limiting reliance on retention as the preferred alternative. Everybody agrees that grade retention alone offers no advantages relative to social promotion. My issue with the McLeod cite (and others just like it) is that it's a rehash of a long-standing debate on the merits & limitations of the two approaches and is being used here to discount the current proposal, which is not a simple switch from one pole of the argument to the other.

            Third-grade literacy proposal has wide appeal, experts say.

            The retention portion of the governor's proposal, which is based on a model that has had success in Florida, has been criticized by some parents and teachers. But Linda Fandel, special assistant on education in the governor's office, defended the policy's hard-line approach during a panel discussion following Smith's speech.

            "The value of the retention stick in the policy is that it pressures the whole system to really look out for more children, so we are getting more children through," she said. "Retention should never be the goal."

            Parents, teachers support literacy programs. They say emphasis there would lead to support for ending social promotion.

            Parents and some teachers at public forums Saturday said they could support Gov. Terry Branstad's proposal to end social promotion for third-graders if it provides the right mix of literacy programs.

            Teachers said any plan must include robust financing strategies because budget reductions have cut reading programs and increased class sizes. Parents, meanwhile, said they liked the idea of setting clear expectations for students.


            If modeled after Florida's policies, intensive reading programs would start in early childhood, and English language learners and students with disabilities could be exempted from retention, said Linda Fandel, the governor's special assistant for education.

            "Retention is their very last resort, and they have a lot of exceptions," she said.


            Branstad said ending social promotion may be the controversial part of a wide range of education reforms he proposed in October. However, he said the policy puts parents on notice and pushes them to become more involved in a child's education.

            Here is a descriptive list of FL exemptions:

            Good Cause Exemptions for FL Policy


            1. Students w/ limited English proficiency who have < 2 yrs ESOL.

            2. Students w/ disabilities for whom participation in the statewide assessment program is not appropriate.

            3. Students who demonstrate an acceptable level of performance on an alternative standardized reading assessment.

            4. Students who demonstrate through a portfolio that they are reading on grade level.

            5. Students w/ disabilities who were previously retained in K-3.

            6. Students who were previously retained in grades K-3 for two or more years.

            IMO, a parent/student who is not able to petition based on (3) or (4) is not, in fact, sufficiently engaged.

            On the flip side:

            Rep. Mary Mascher, D-Iowa City, said that's one reason why Iowa should consider other options.

            "There's no data that says retention helps student achievement," Mascher said. "To fail students makes no sense at all. I don't understand the rationale for it or any evidence that it works."

            The FL was implemented the 2002-2003 academic year. Obviously, data is (are, if you prefer) insufficient.

            The cornerstone to stepping on the scale for retention in cases where a decision must be made is the idea that success is more likely when students and parents are pressured to identify as stakeholders and forced to consider short-term consequences of inadequate literacy.

            There is some overlap between this and the health insurance mandate coupled w/ evidence-based health research. The school of thought is that we all become stakeholders invested in maintaining healthy practices (to avoid premium penalties). I am no fan of the mandate (or mandates in general) but recognize that literacy by third grade is more urgent in nature. I generally agree w/ the statement that by this point, students are reading to learn, not learning to read. And students do not continue in match/science by relying on symbols alone. In fact, what most students have a problem with is taking a descriptive problem, aka "word problem" and mapping it to the correct logic.

            Funding is a concern, too. Several Eastern Iowa school districts discontinued their summer programs to save money. Even Florida has cut funding for its summer reading camps.

            "If they don't put additional dollars into the support system, this won't work," Mascher said. "The supports are the things that will bring results. That's what's going to make a difference, not retention."

            Here, there is broad agreement, save the sticking point of whether retention should be used as a stick.

            IMO, Mascher or the unidentified educators you have relied on "for months" should focus their arguments on specifics beyond a general rant against retention. The funding aspect is a no-brainer.

            1. Agree or disagree w/ the Annie E. Casey Foundation's findings (2011) of third-grade as pivotal?

            2. What are your specific issues with the Good Cause Exemptions? Do you agree that inability top satisfy (4)/(5) indicates lack of parent/student involvement? If so, what are specific objections against a "stick" response?

            3. What do you propose instead?

            There may be some real problems with the above, but I'm not hearing them yet.

            I don't know what to say in response to your "consultation with experts for months" except that it comes across as though you feel they are beyond reproach, and that you are performing a public service by acting as an intermediary interfacing with the proles. That's the vibe I get.

            • fair enough

              Reasonable minds can differ. When these bills are debated in Iowa House and Senate committees, I expect we'll hear more from various legislators on specific language/proposals to deal with this issue.

              • according to DMR this morning

                portfolio option will be offered in addition to testing.

                I don't see that the old "retention vs social promotion" argument is relevant here. There are many noted educators like Linda Darling-Hammond who are strongly against "runaway retention" but favor early intervention, which I think is the focus here, not the "either, or" argument.

                Linda Fandel has a nice short page up at w/ statement of the issue at hand. Note that the Casey Foundation study linked in is very recent research (2011).

                Retention would be a last resort to be used only after a much more intensive effort to help children learn to read, starting in preschool.  It would also involve more outreach to parents for their assistance.

                Florida has used this approach with great success, and today has significantly higher fourth-grade reading scores than Iowa on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (an average 225 vs. 221). This is the case despite Florida having a much higher share of students who start out as English language learners and a much higher share of low-income students compared to Iowa.

                Retention is the stick that pushes everyone to really focus on reading, and Florida today holds back relatively few students.

                I do think that it's still too early to come to hard and fast conclusions on FL, but the argument is about using retention as a last resort option after a series of interventions, not as a solution to discovery of inadequate literacy skills all of a sudden in the third grade. I definitely think the administration's plan deserves a fair hearing without prejudicing Iowans in advance with dated ideological arguments.  

                Given the way these things go, it's not hard to anticipate some of the possible criticisms. For example, I can imagine a possible argument that "Florida today holds back relatively few students" is based on an accounting trick. Not saying that's the case, but I would not be surprised to hear warnings along these lines. Here I agree w/ you that the debate will be informative.

              • I see no evidence

                that this is intended

                some lousy (retaining large numbers of third graders mentioned by many in this context)

                Are they commenting on the actual proposal? Worried about the initial (first year) blip up? This has me scratching my head unless there's specific commentary on why Fandel is flat-out lying or misguided about either intentions or practical outcomes.  

  • Read the research

    It's important to recognize a few things here:

    1. There is no 'other side' when it comes to the retention research. If you dig into it all, you'll see that it's all very consistent and negative. You may see some short-term academic benefits (e.g., if you retain kids in 3rd grade, you may see better 4th grade - 7th grade test scores). You also may not - many studies see those short-term gains ending quickly or not materializing at all. And, unanimously, the research that looks at longer-term results shows incredibly higher dropout rates, lower self-concept, diminished life success as adults, etc.

    2. The 'current' research is consistent with the older research. If you actually read the research being touted here, it all focuses on short-term gains (e.g., the Casey Foundation and NYC studies mentioned here). There is nothing yet to disprove all of the older research, nor would we expect it to since the current flavor of grade retention isn't any different than past forms that have been tried elsewhere. We don't all of a sudden have some miraculous way of doing grade retention that works - we're doing the same thing others have in the past. It's also worth noting that the trotting out of a couple of recent studies that show short-term gains - and then saying "Well, we don't know what the long-term effects will be" - is insufficient given the overwhelming preponderance of LOTS of other research (i.e., research that wasn't trotted out) that already shows us what the long-term effects will be.

    This is not an ideological issue (or at least it shouldn't be). It's a question of what the data show us, which are consistent and unilaterally negative impacts on children. Sure, 'social promotion' of a struggling reader is not a desirable policy or educational choice. It goes against our intuition and our gut hunches about how we think the world works. But the alternative, grade retention, unfortunately appears to be even worse. That's counterintuitive but, whether we like it or not, that's what the data and the research tell us. I don't think we Iowa citizens, educators, or policymakers should be advocating for research-based approaches (when possible) and then ignoring the vast body of research when it happens to disagree with our preconceived notions.

    • "There is nothing yet to disprove all of the older research"

      Already acknowledged.

      You are forecasting failure of what you call the "current flavor" based on older research over the the 20thC. It is not in dispute that the collection of studies from the 90s show gains in the 4th-7th grades that dissipate in the long-term, largely due to lack of tracking/intervention beyond the early period. One question on my mind that Branstad/Fandel/Glass must account for is how Iowa plans to build on early gains to ensure better long-term outcomes. How are the early interventions structural?

      Sure, 'social promotion' of a struggling reader is not a desirable policy or educational choice. It goes against our intuition and our gut hunches about how we think the world works. But the alternative, grade retention, unfortunately appears to be even worse. That's counterintuitive but, whether we like it or not, that's what the data and the research tell us.

      I don't think it's about ignoring a body of older research. It's about ignoring "lesser evilism."

      We probably agree on what studies from the 90s tell us. Socially promoted and retained students are both under-achieving (the two evils). Social promotion becomes the de facto lesser evil because the retained students tend to 1) earn lower pay as young adults 2) drop out of high school at greater rates 3) experience lower self-esteem and perhaps more generally, students react differently to the stress of all-determinative standardized testing.

      The factors commonly cited for why retention is a failure are not controversial: 1) lack of remedial strategies beyond grade repetition 2) (related) lack of attention to structural interventions that ensure long-term gains 3) social stigma associated with retention. ("Johnny is older and taller than the other kids.")

      I don't find the research counter-intuitive at all. Why is it counter-intuitive that the socially-promoted, now called "high school graduates," have had somewhat better options for employment and pay rate? Why is it counter-intuitive that in the absence of uniform policy application that retained students feel socially stigmatized?

      The reason social promotion cannot be accepted as the lesser evil is because increasingly, a hs degree coupled to inadequate skills is not enough. We have a new economy and globalization to contend with. When I was a child, there was insufficient emphasis on foreign language skills, deemed a "nice to have," because we relied on US domination of the world economy.

      On paper, the FL/IA model, or "current flavor," if you prefer, addresses some of these issues, which is why I continue to be open-minded instead of dismissing it immediately.

      1. The underlying rationale is that we can no longer put people on the street with sub-standard skills, irrespective of how we get there. There are fewer and fewer options for the marginally educated holding what some would call a "worthless" high school degree.

      2. The mechanism is a coercive mandate to be applied statewide. Proponents argue that uniform policy reduces the social stigma associated with retention. The ban on social promotion is a soft ban -- I expect that the IA exemptions will mimic the FL exemptions. I would note that the opportunity to present a portfolio was not available when I was in school: the decision to promote or retain was purely discretionary, that is to say arbitrary and capricious, which I disagree with. I would also note that there has been some issue with past research in reliably tracking the socially-promoted for the same reason.

      Proponents of a coercive mandate also argue the benefit of increasing stakeholder awareness and involvement. Granted, the verdict is not clear yet -- meaning, whether this is the "right" path -- we probably have general agreement on the end goal. Early FL results showed an immediate spike in retention, followed by a decline as parents, students and teachers realized that social promotion simply wasn't an option. Fandel quotes lower current retention rates in FL as compared to IA. I expect this to be challenged, and that's fine. Let all the parties make their respective cases. It doesn't mean that I'm dismissing the plan at first glance.

      3. Remedial programs, particularly the early interventions, go above and beyond what earlier studies were based on. Obviously, the plan proponents will need to make the case that there is sufficient commitment and funding.

      The risk factors for retention are well known: minorities, low-income, and a gender gap at early ages. One argument for social promotion has been to reduce the retention rate for the above groups, which has been "acceptable" policy as long as the socially-promoted continued to enjoy some nominal advantages later, like obtaining employment based on high school graduation.

      Socioeconomic metrics I've been tracking shows sharp departures from trends before 2008. I don't think we can look at education in isolation, and I favor a proactive approach rather than waiting for the next body of research on retention v social promotion in the new economy, which may very well erase any perceived "lesser evilism" of social promotion. My opinion is that economic circumstances of the 20thC did permit a "slacker" attitude in the US, including a reliance on social promotion to allow under-achievers to "get through" the system.

      As our economic dominance is challenged, we see new urgency from political leaders in areas like health care and education. Coercive mandates are utilized to close the gap rapidly, with compliance and positive outcomes strongly dependent on the commitment of adequate resources by the state. This is a middle ground approach.

      President Obama has spoken to African American parents via targeted outreach like Essence magazine, and his comments echo this sense of urgency: a whole-scale change in attitude and priorities is required across-the-board, and minority children, who will be in the majority in the not-distant future are very much in danger of getting completely left behind. His "talks" are sometimes referred to as "tough love" in the mainstream press. It's tough love because of the demand to excel, not to settle. It's a tall order for factory schools dominated by security guards and burned-out faculty. Unsurprisingly, government-issued vouchers for private schools look increasingly attractive. Why not put your kid in a school where suitable interventions or mixed-aged classrooms are already in place, or where parent-student-teacher alliances are fostered naturally? We hope that reforms promote and enhance these concepts in under-performing schools, so the real sticking point is only whether the possibility of retention, after numerous interventions and after exhaustion of alternatives stipulated by policy have failed, assists in making these reforms work. Are stakeholders more or less likely to get on board in the absence of consequences?

      Thank you for your comment. If you have a link handy to a reference that you feel is a reliable predictive model for FL reform specifically, please post. Assume competence in statistical measures and methodology.

      • the whole question of statewide mandates

        is going to be a problem when this package is debated in the Iowa House. As you know, many Republicans believe the core curriculum should be abolished, not strengthened. They may be under pressure to resist stronger uniform standards in any additional areas.

        On the topic of social promotion, I thought this blog post was interesting:

        Let me be clear on this point, I am just as opposed to social promotion as I am to retention. Why? Both are products of the assumption that time is constant and that the best way to organize and educate is by batching same-age children together, taking them through a series of disconnected and prescribed content-based coursework, evaluating them via grades and age/time based tests and then either sending them back for re-work or moving them down the assembly line incomplete because it is "time" for them to move to the next set of curriculum. Social promotion of children who have not mastered the competencies necessary for success at the next level because the assembly line demands it is horribly damaging to a young person. So to, is sending them back for re-work when they reach the end of the assembly line because the message is: you are a defective product. When will we have the courage to recognize that the system we place these children in artificially creates these failures?

        If we truly understood and accepted a new assumption about learning - that learning is a highly personal and variable attribute - we would aggressively make strides to create a system based upon competency and the interventions and actions required to continue to help children demonstrate a basic set of skills and abilities as they progressed through the system. We would also recognize that student passion and interest is the prime learning motivation and not old and tired "carrot-and-stick" approaches. Brain research (and quite frankly, a good dose of common sense) tells us that people learn at different rates. Pat Wolfe, a noted brain researcher, indicates that "learning to read" occurs across a distribution from age 6 to 10. Artificially deciding that if a child isn't reading to learn by age 8 and assuming that this destines them for a poor academic career says more about the system we use to teach and move students than about the child themselves. We assume that all students are and should be motivated to learn what we have to teach them.

        What if we had a system whereby an 8 year old who read like a 6 year old but had a passion and talent for science discovery could continue to pursue those skills while teachers helped him connect his passion areas to reading - to help him see for himself how improving his reading could open up a greater world of art and science? Perhaps his motivation to read would kick in and the system would allow him to progress naturally through his reading progression. By age 9, he might likely be "reading to learn" and still be engaged in and excited by his learning. A much different vision than making him repeat an artificial construct like "3rd grade" because he didn't read as well as other 8 year olds.

        • this post is productive

          because it rejects lesser evilism and starts probing in new directions.

          The state will no longer send paper tax forms. You are encouraged to file electronically. Vilsack is closing some USDA field offices. Software is getting an update to assist farmers with their paperwork. These are just some of the reasons I was not a harsher critic of the IWD-kiosk decision. One (legitimate) concern is that older folks have trouble negotiating the software, but what is this implying about our expectations of young adults? That they are proficient, no excuses. This is now the default assumption.

          When will we have the courage to recognize that the system we place these children in artificially creates these failures?

          It's a system designed for post-industrial needs. It is a factory system, and I don't feel the need to lambast from the distance of the 21stC information age. The US was the dominant superpower for most of the last century, and with that, we had a lot of latitude, including an assumption of educational mobility at any life stage if needed beyond basic skill mastery sufficient for a good job on the assembly line, in trucking and transportation, etc. There are many reasons for the "artificially created failures," but we can cut to the chase by saying that perhaps we are due a redesign as we transition to an emphasis on knowledge acquisition skills and their application.

          A big part of the problem is political "leadership." Some time ago I read a very interesting study conducted either under the Vilsack or (more likely) Culver administration. A team was sent out to interview rural educators, including volunteers, on the issue of integrating Latino schoolchildren. One detail jumped out at me -- comments about how hard it was to work with families who, at any given time, might pull the children out of the school to attend to an emergency, business or family matter, in Central America. This is a problem of our own making. If you keep part of your workforce "undocumented" or invisible, naturally, ties outside of the country are likely to be maintained longer. You can say "well, too bad," but no, it's too bad for us, and you only have to look at foreclosed neighborhoods across the country, or at Postville, to understand that it's a double-edged sword.

          When I read in Bloom's article that UIowa is actively recruiting in China for journalism students, or when I read in the WP that we import "high-skill" workers but freeze their status as non-resident with onerous visa requirements, I ponder how many of these "artificially created failures" aren't also due to lack of political will. How committed is leadership to a top-tier US educational system when there are no limits to drawing on "outsiders" with no pressure to confer the responsibility of residency/citizenship? My opinion, of course, is that we should want them as allies and co-stakeholders in reforming US education instead of limiting them to a transactional relationship w/ US businesses, which includes higher education.

          Politically, social promotion has "worked" in the past because retaining students is expensive for school systems, obviously. It's one version of an unfunded mandate. Another one may well be requiring retention without sufficient funding for all of the preventative and remedial measures. I worry that it may well be impossible to ever make that connection to long-term gains and success because the message is: we are not going to invest in you because we have all of these alternatives to you. And kids aren't stupid.

    • while we are here,

      in fairness, universal agreement over "what the data shows us" does not exist. A couple of cites:

      Lorence (2006):

      many of the individual studies evidence inadequate research designs and faulty conclusions. The overwhelming majority of conclusions from grade retention studies are unwarranted due to the poor quality of research. Overlooked and more recent retention and grade repartition studies suggest that making students repeat a grade may help increase academic achievement.

      Jackson (1975):

      the accumulated research evidence is so poor that valid inferences cannot be drawn concerning the relative benefits of the two options.

      Alexander, Entwisle, Dauber (1994): "bad science"

      I personally find the conclusions largely irrelevant for these times, where the effects of free trade, immigration etc are wiping out the alleged marginal benefit to social promotion. College graduates are having difficulty with employment, so talk about dancing on the head of a pin.

      I certainly understand why the possibility of retention hovering in the background is unappealing to some, but it is one option to facilitate bringing stakeholders together to take a culture of academic excellence seriously in a reasonable amount of time. I see no reason to dismiss the proposed plan immediately based solely on older research that does not and cannot "prove" this plan's failure due to retention as an option of last resort. Since very vocal opponents such as yourself and Rep. Mary Mascher use the older research as something of a cudgel, it is only fair to point out that its quality does have its detractors.

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