Iowa Senate approves education reform bill

The Iowa Senate approved a broad education reform bill yesterday on a party-line vote of 26 to 24. Details on Senate File 2284 and the floor debate in the upper chamber are after the jump.

I've also included the latest news on efforts to stop Iowa school districts from starting the academic year before September 1. If state lawmakers don't act on that proposal, Governor Terry Branstad may try to force the issue.

An Iowa Senate press release highlighted "key elements" of the education reform legislation:

·         Continue the focus on reading and small class sizes in the early grades so teachers can help struggling students catch up.

·         Expand core classes to include arts, music, and technology because the challenges of the 21st century require a well-rounded education that goes beyond the three "Rs."

·         Help teachers improve with more teacher-to-teacher collaboration and classroom coaching.

·         Use the best online learning resources to expand course offerings under teacher supervision.

·         Intensify connections between schools and the families of struggling students.  

Democratic State Representative Tyler Olson praised the language in Senate File 2284 that creates a task force to study "competency-based instruction standards and options and the integration of competency-based instruction with the Iowa core curriculum, and to develop related assessment models and professional development focused on competency-based instruction."

The Senate took up this bill last week. Education Committee Chair Herman Quirmbach's opening remarks are up on YouTube. During his speech, Quirmbach summarized the main points of the education reform bill and the floor manager's amendment. He also alluded to the Iowa Department of Education's application for a waiver from federal No Child Left Behind. Quirmbach noted that Senate Democrats "believe that the provisions in this bill significantly strengthen our waiver application and its chances for approval" by the federal government. Quirmbach added that Senate File 2284 is not an appropriations bill, even though it was run through the Appropriations Committee to get around the "funnel" deadline. Since certain provisions will incur costs, Quirmbach noted, "we have eliminated or downsized several of the elements of this bill" to keep it in line with the state budget resources likely to be available.

Senate Republicans proposed many amendments to the education reform bill. Some of them replaced the whole text, some of them made only minor alterations. All failed on party-line votes. The Senate Journal for April 4 (pdf) contains details on the floor debate, including the roll calls. A final vote on passage was delayed because State Senator Wally Horn was absent last week, and Democrats needed all 26 members of their caucus to get the bill passed.

During the Senate debate, several Republicans offered negative assessments of Iowa schools. Democratic State Senator Rob Hogg challenged his colleagues in this speech on the Senate floor. Excerpt:

I'm listening to the conversation, especially some of the things coming from the other side of the aisle tonight. Oh, we've got bad students and bad teachers and bad principals and bad schools, bad. I'm wondering to myself, what Iowa are you looking at? Where's the reality? Our scores and our performance continues to go up, we're second in the nation in ACT scores, we still have a great educational system. As a parent of three kids in the Cedar Rapids school district, I marvel at what my kids have in terms of opportunities and what they're learning. And, and I think the data supports that that's generally true around the state. We have an excellent educational system in the state of Iowa. [...]

I was a school child when Governor Branstad was governor the first time. And I will tell you, I have no doubt in my mind that my kids are getting a much better education than I got.

On April 9 the Senate resumed consideration of Senate File 2284. Along party lines, senators rejected a Republican amendment seeking to expand the number of entities that can establish charter schools in Iowa. Another GOP amendment to allow parents to teach driver's ed was ruled out of order. Then all 26 Democratic senators voted for final passage of Senate File 2284. All 24 Republican senators voted no.

Many features of the Branstad administration's education reform blueprint were altered or omitted from Senate File 2284. For instance, Senate Democrats ignored the proposal to alter the prevailing "step and lane" teacher salary structure. In addition,

The Senate bill keeps the controversial third-grade retention component of the early grade statewide reading program, but it requires that schools look at other grades than reading scores and involve parents in the conversation before students are retained. It also adds a kindergarten-readiness test but does not include the House provisions for end-of-course exams or Gov. Terry Branstad's call for a college entrance exam, such as the ACT.

The Senate bill does provide for annual reviews for teachers and administrators (sections 14 and 15), assuming the legislature allocates adequate funding toward that purpose. Branstad's reform proposal called for annual reviews in place of teacher evaluations once every three years.

The governor has described the Senate's version of education reform as "watered-down," but yesterday he indicated that he would accept half a loaf.

"Let's accomplish as much as we can this year," the governor said, "and then we'll come back and try to get what we can't get done this year next year. But this is the year. We put a lot of time and a lot of planning and a lot of effort into this. We know that we're not going to do that in one year. But we want to make a big, significant, bold step forward this year."

The Republican-controlled Iowa House approved a different education reform bill last month. Seven Republicans joined all the House Democrats in voting against House File 2380. Bleeding Heartland covered that bill's key points and the roll call vote here. Although House Republicans didn't advance all the big ideas in the governor's education blueprint, Branstad described the House bill as "progress."

Quirmbach noted during his opening remarks for the Senate debate that even though House File 2380 didn't make it through the upper chamber's "funnel," Senate File 2284 borrowed some ideas from that House bill. Still, there are big differences between the House and Senate versions of education reform and how to pay for it.

A major obstacle to agreement will be financing, [Democratic State Senator Brian] Schoenjahn noted, saying Senate Democrats won't accept House Republican plans to shift money from existing class-size reduction and other programs to cover the $17 million or more price tag needed to implement the new reforms.

"Taking money from existing programs to finance reform is probably not the direction that we are interested in," he said.

"I think if House Republicans really want to follow through on their governor's proposal, I think they're going to have to put some money on the table," added Quirmbach. "There are some things in the bill that we can do that don't cost any money, but if you really want to intervene and help early childhood or early grade reading, you've got to put some resources into that. That's one of the top priorities of our caucus to be sure."

Taking money from class-size reduction programs to fund new student achievement initiatives is a shocking example of robbing Peter to pay Paul. State revenue estimates are increasing. If education reform is worthwhile, House Republicans should allocate more money toward that end. But I expect GOP negotiators to drive a hard bargain on that point.

The Iowa legislature's 2012 session is scheduled to end on April 17. With education reform, property tax changes, state budget targets, and other issues unresolved, I will be surprised if lawmakers adjourn for the year before mid-May.

Branstad made news yesterday on a different education policy issue. Speaking to reporters at his weekly press conference, the governor said he might tell the State Department of Education to deny waivers to school districts seeking to start before September 1. Under current state law, the K-12 school year is supposed to begin during the week in which September 1 falls. Hundreds of school districts get around that restriction by applying for a waiver from the Department of Education. As start dates have crept earlier into mid-August in recent years, businesses in the tourism industry have sought legislative action.

House Speaker Kraig Paulsen has indicated that there may be 51 votes in the Iowa House for a bill restricting waivers for school districts that want to start before the fourth Monday in August. Paulsen is sympathetic to tourism industry representatives who say they need ten weeks of summer vacation from mid-June to late August. Iowa House Education Committee Chair Greg Forristall makes the better argument.

"When I initially showed up in the legislature, I didn't see necessarily why the legislature should get into that. At this point, I sort of do, especially as we look for more opportunities for school districts to work together," Paulsen says. "I will tell you it has the most support in the House that I've ever seen in the 10 years I've been there."

But another Republican - Representative Greg Forristall of Macedonia - vows to do what he can to kill the bill.

"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, "Foristall says. "I think this bill is an embarassment."

Branstad has a long history of putting business interests first, but even I'm shocked he would take a stand against early school start dates when he's been urging legislators for months to make boosting student achievement a top priority.

The Iowa Association of Christian Schools listed several valid reasons for school districts to start the academic year before September 1.

To avoid spending a week in January refreshing students' memories, effectively adding days of instruction.

To avoid taking exams immediately after Christmas break.

To allow those students graduating at semester to attend college starting in January.

To avoid the impact of made-up snow days extending well in to June.

To facilitate dual credit courses for high school students with post-secondary institutions by having the calendars better aligned.

Student athletes are on campus already August 11 for the State (IHSAA and IGHSAU) mandated start of Fall sports practices (football, volleyball, and Cross-country) with first contests starting the week of August 20.  It makes no sense to have football and volleyball games and not yet be in school.

To prep students for the finals testing regimen they will likely face in college, and allow them to enjoy winter break with no finals hanging over their heads.

To give some buffer between the end of the school year and the opportunity for teachers to begin summer coursework in June.

Share any relevant thoughts in this thread.

UPDATE: Jason Clayworth posted a good guide to the differences between the House, Senate, and governor's education reform proposals.


HOUSE: Students would be allowed to earn academic credit by demonstrating proficiency in a subject rather than going strictly on the amount of time a student is in a class.

SENATE: The Senate's version additionally agreed with the House's to set up a task force to provide guidance to districts.

GOVERNOR: The three versions are similar in their approach. There is no task force in the governor's proposal.


HOUSE: Teachers would be evaluated annually, rather than every three years under current law. The state's education department would help create a new evaluation process that would be approved by next year's legislature.

SENATE: Every year a teacher would get evaluated under the Senate plan.  Every three years it would be by an administrator, which is intended to be more detailed and include a portfolio review.  In the other two years teachers would be peer evaluated, which would focus on their continuous improvement plans and goals.  Peer review would not be part of formal evaluation.

GOVERNOR: Would provide with an annual evaluation similar to the House's. The state's education department would design the evaluation, but would not require legislative approval.


HOUSE: High school students would be required to complete end-of-course exams that would be factored into graduation requirements; high school juniors would be required to take either college-entrance exams or career readiness assessments at no cost to the student.

SENATE: The Senate version doesn't address end-of-course testing at high school level. Unlike the House and governor's plans, the Senate bill would not implement a "value-added assessment" system using testing to measure student achievement and teacher performance. The Results would be used to validate observation by school administrators.

GOVERNOR: Requires end-of-course exams like the House version.

OTHER DIFFERENCES: In the Governor's plan, all high school juniors would have been required to take a college entrance exam. The House offers a choice between a college exam and a career-readiness test. The Senate would not require such tests.


HOUSE: The CAM and Clayton Ridge school districts would be able to continue with plans to offer full-time, online-only education programs and receive full state funding for students enrolled in those programs. Enrollment statewide in full-time, online-only programs would be limited to about 900 students with caps to the number of students eligible for each district.

SENATE: The Senate's version would prohibit more than 50 percent of a student's coursework from being delivered over the Internet, except in narrow situations like medial necessities of a student, among other reasons. The Senate version additionally sets teacher and curriculum requirements for online learning.

GOVERNOR: School districts could choose to enter partnerships with private vendors or use an expanded version of Iowa Learning Online, run by the Iowa Department of Education. It's similar to the House version except it doesn't include the caps.


GOVERNOR: Teachers seeking jobs in Iowa would have been required to apply through a centralized job board maintained by the Department of Education and screened by the state before they could be interviewed by school districts.

HOUSE: House lawmakers scrapped most of the governor's language, requiring only that the Iowa Department of Education list job openings on its website.

SENATE: The Senate version does not address this issue.


HOUSE:  Would not expand the academic expectations for all Iowa's K-12 students but would form an advisory council to continue to review the core curriculum. The House version would specifically exempt non-public schools from curriculum elements that conflict with their religious tenets.

SENATE: Would expand the core curriculum. The Senate version, like the House, includes the advisory council but not the language on religious objection.

GOVERNOR: Similar to the Senate, the governor's version would expand the Iowa Core Curriculum. The governor's version would to include character education, music and other fine arts, applied arts, foreign languages and other areas.


HOUSE: All three versions place a heavy emphasis on building reading skills in the early elementary grades. The House, like the governor, would hold third-graders back who cannot demonstrate sufficient reading skills, but provides for good-cause exemptions.  The House version, however, would delay holding back third graders for about four years while the governor's would begin in the upcoming school year.

SENATE: Would not make holding a third grader back mandatory, giving room for consideration of competency in other educational areas. The Senate version also requires the consultation of a parent/guardian prior to hold a third grader back.

GOVERNOR: The House adopted what is largely the governor's language on this issue.

  • puzzled

    Many features of the Branstad administration's education reform blueprint are nowhere to be found in Senate File 2284. For instance,

       The Senate bill keeps the controversial third-grade retention component of the early grade statewide reading program, but it requires that schools look at other grades than reading scores and involve parents in the conversation before students are retained.

    Nowhere to be found? I'm actually a little surprised that third grade retention made it through in the Dem bill. It does not look too different from what was originally proposed which was always a "soft" ban with plenty of workarounds for both students and parents.

    • that part was poorly written

      I rewrote that portion of the post for clarity.

      I'm also surprised that any provisions on third grade retention were included in the Senate bill. Seems like they want to go to the mat to protect the small class-size funding and the early childhood education.

      • semantics

        looking at Clayworth's summary (early grade literacy):

        The House, like the governor, would hold third-graders back who cannot demonstrate sufficient reading skills, but provides for good-cause exemptions.

        Would not make holding a third grader back mandatory, giving room for consideration of competency in other educational areas. The Senate version also requires the consultation of a parent/guardian prior to hold a third grader back.

        Some dancing around the word "mandatory." The House employs it while providing for good-cause exemptions. The Senate claims "not mandatory" based on consideration of competency in other areas (sounds like the 'portfolio' good-cause exemption).  

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