Ed. Reform Bill: A Failure of Policy & Politics

Iowa HouseSoon after the final votes of the Iowa legislative session were taken late last week, many legislators from both Parties took to multiple media platforms trumpeting the “historic” and “sweeping” positive reforms they had just passed.  I would love to fully concur—and if I happened to be a Democrat I certainly would—but as a Conservative Republican I am less than impressed with some of these “achievements”.

Of the three major compromises reached I believe, at the most, Conservatives should be “somewhat satisfied” by the understandable terms reached on tax reform and health insurance coverage.  However, I am deeply disappointed by what has passed as “reform” in Iowa’s K-12 education system.  The following will focus on education reform and later in the week we will deal with the tax and health insurance issues.

Making Appropriate Distinctions

In general I believe House and Senate Republicans grossly misread and under-valued the strength of their hand—particularly in dealing with education reform.  In all fairness, the tax reform and health insurance issues had different dynamics surrounding them and this criticism applies less in these areas.

The reason for the differing standard in my mind on the tax and health insurance issues was that in these two areas inaction would have resulted in direct negative consequences for Iowans—higher taxes and un-insured citizens.  However, when it came specifically to public education reform the status-quo would not have concretely damaged anyone—a point made more painful by the likelihood the reforms that were passed will have no positive impact.

Just to be clear, I am making a key distinction between the public education reforms and the home schooling reforms contained in the bill.  I strongly support any action that makes it easier for homeschoolers to operate and expand—and I do not necessarily begrudge them for supporting this reform as a means to achieve it.  The real tragedy here is the sad construct in which this group has to “buy” these reforms by supporting increased money for an ever-expanding and shamefully ineffective education leviathan.  The truth is the vast majority of home schooling families pay taxes to support a system which they often-wisely opt out of—and then ironically proceed to outperform while simultaneously funding.

Public Education Reform

The best way to go about exposing this bill as the completely ineffective piece of legislation I believe it to be is by asking 6 simple questions.  Since we as taxpayers will be spending an additional $160 million dollars a year, answering these questions shouldn’t be too much to ask—unfortunately I have a strong suspicion that even those who voted for it can’t provide many answers.

1.  How and when will we know this reform has worked?

By this I mean what specific metric or metrics can be looked at to prove this reform has or hasn’t worked?  Additionally what date on the calendar will we be able to make this assessment?  At a minimum Republicans should of asked these questions and demanded the answers be written into the bill. Surely this isn’t too much to ask for.

2. Why didn’t the 35.4% increase in K-12 education spending (an additional $650 million) that we have had since 2002 produce any positive results?

A seemingly common-sense question to ask I would say.  It would be one thing if this reform came on the heels of us having starved the system of money for decades—but this simply isn’t the case.  What specifically did this massive increase (including 4% allowable growth every year under Gov. Culver) in spending since 2002 go to?  Was it supposed to raise test scores?—I hope not because if so it clearly didn’t.

3. Are we to honestly believe that every member of the Iowa House (91-0) and 80% of the Iowa Senate (40-10) looked at this legislation and all independently concluded it would deliver fantastic results?  And further that these results would justify spending an additional $160 million a year?

I fully understand the concept of compromising, and that doing so will deliver a more bi-partisan roll call—but let’s be serious here.  Anytime Ako Abdul-Samad and Tom Shaw are voting together on a major reform that spends hundreds of millions of dollars and affects every child in Iowa we have to be skeptical.  Unless I’m missing something I see only two possible reasons for this—and neither are good.  One is that many out of town members just wanted to go home (which I doubt), and two is that so many random offerings were made by both sides it was just palpable enough for each caucus to vote for (which I believe).  If so, this approach will never result in a meaningful, affordable, and wise solution.

4. Why does it continue to be acceptable not to evaluate teachers, at least in part, by the actual results they achieve in a classroom over the course of a school year?  And what kind of people refuse to stop the practice of passing 3rd graders on to the next grade when they can’t even read?  And whose interest are they honestly serving in doing so?

The answers in order are: the teachers union, disgraceful ones, and their own.  This is where true education reform lies and the fact Republicans can only get a “study council” on teacher evaluation is absurd—too mad to expound on any further.

5. How were teachers able to have such high-performance in the late 1980’s and mid-90’s and not in the 2000’s and beyond?

In the early 90’s Iowa led the nation in reading and math scores—but those days are long gone.  Today we face disturbing realities like this one—only 3 other states in the nation (2 of which are in the Deep South) have less 8th graders enrolled in some form of advanced math by grade 8.  Furthermore, the performance of minority students in math at this level is alarmingly low and trials other students by up to 30%.

During this debate we have heard a lot about starting teacher pay in Iowa.  While this is an important number, lost in shuffle is the fact that the average teacher salary in Iowa has increased from $36,480 in 2001 to $49,622 in 2010.  The teachers union will say this steep increase was due to the fact Iowa teachers were among the lowest paid in the late 90’s-early 2000’s and this in part is true.  But then I ask: if they were among the lowest paid and salary equates to performance—how could they possibly have had Iowa kids achieving at such a high level?  Also, the fact remains they saw a large increase in pay and responded with flat-lining and worsening performance.  By the way, if the teacher’s union is ready to start blaming the kids or their parents for worsening test scores I’m ready to listen.

6. Why does “reform” always mean spending more money?  Why can’t it ever be spending the same amount of money but in a smarter way—or even (gasp) spending less?

Maybe someday we will try it…I bet it would be just as effective if not more so.

Final Thoughts

Though controlling only the Senate and not having the House or the Governor’s office—Democrats got well over half of what they were after with this bill and have to be privately ecstatic.  They managed to get additional money both for 1st year and veteran teachers, 4% allowable growth this year and next, and have again avoided being evaluated on their actual results.  Republicans should and could have done much better—and if they couldn’t they should have done nothing.

And the final insult—I can’t be the only one who sees the irony that we apparently have to create “career pathways” with increased pay for our not-so-good teachers to be taught by other teachers how to teach better…and this is after the not-so-good teacher already graduated from a college that apparently did a not-so-good job teaching them how to teach in the first place.  A sign of the times I guess…

 

 

 

 

About the Author

Mr. Arnold is a long time constitutional conservative. He holds a Bachelor of Arts Degree in English Literature from the University of Iowa. Over the last few years he has been involved in numerous political campaigns, most recently serving as campaign manager for an Iowa House candidate and serving as a city chair for Tom Latham. He is self-employed, running a small business in Ankeny, Iowa where he resides with his wife.

 

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