Make Iowa #1 in Education
If Iowa is going to be a growth state, we must differentiate our offerings among our peers. There was a time when Iowa education ranked #1 in the nation (when I graduated 1995!). It was a source of pride, a badge of honor, it attracted families and business. Today, however, we have fallen off the podium and are relegated to the middle of the pack. We need to perform triage on our current status and develop a non-partisan plan to restore our #1 status as a differentiator, as a competitive advantage, as a building block for an unknown future.
Our most important education priorities:
- Fix the Allowable Growth Debate
- Restore Local Control
- Fund the Student
- Elevate UNI Educational Leadership
Fix the Allowable Growth Debate: As predictable as the sun rises, every year Republicans and Democrats take diametrically opposed funding positions, usually 0% and 6% allowable growth respectively. After weeks of debate, they arrive close to the middle while school districts desperately try to follow the debate so they can hire and fire per the legislative action. Too often, school districts fail to meet their statutory budget obligations because of the legislative show-down. Solution(*): Index allowable growth to inflation and offer supplementary funding to meet discretionary initiatives.
Restore Local Control: It is no coincidence that Iowa education has fallen behind while we have simultaneously ceded so much curriculum and systematic control to the federal and state levels. I don’t want my children’s education designed by Texas or Illinois education bureaucrats. I don’t want my children’s education mandated by the State of Iowa either. Some measurement is important, but our drill and kill, high-stakes testing is negatively transforming the classroom (and chasing away great teachers in the process!). Project-based learning, skills development (those that can’t be measured by a bubble), and technology/tool integration are hugely important but largely minimized by the testing culture of today. Prescribed curriculum is impeding innovation in the classroom. Curriculum Directors of the past have been relegated to compliance officers. Every school district is unique. Cedar Falls is different than Waterloo, which is different than Keokuk, which is still different than Ankeny. A one-size fits all curriculum makes us all the same, I want our school districts to be uniquely different - constantly exploring new ways, innovations and approaches to support student achievement. Cedar Falls Consolidated School District is doing great things… ‘every skill, every student’, community and business partnerships, technology integration, STEM, professional learning communities, tailored education plans, UNI field-experience partnerships. This is good, this is by local design. It is the constant measurement, mandates and regulation that hold us back. Solution(**): decouple federal directives/mandates/regulations, turn state directives to voluntary, supported initiatives (i.e. STEM model), empower local school districts and boards to design an education fitting and proper for their communities.
Fund the Student: We often say fund our schools, but at the state level, we should fund the student. Parents should have an option to choose the school that best fits their child’s learning needs - public or private. Today public schools maintain a pseudo monopoly by virtue of their taxpayer supported, tax-advantaged status. This lock on students and funding can have deleterious effects on school programming agility, special-interest influence, innovation and accountability. My family evaluated private options because we value foreign language during developmental years. Yet despite decades of discussion, public schools rarely offer foreign language at the developmentally optimal time. In the end, we had to make an economic decision and send our kids to public school. While there is no regret, it forces us to home-school using technology and field experience to develop foreign language skills. If Waterloo Public schools offered foreign language programming, we would want to consider it as well (without needing to move out of our great city!). In essence, if we have more schools (public or private) competing for students, it will raise the bar for all. Solution(**): offer a small stipend or backpack funding for any accredited school or program.
Elevate UNI Educational Leadership: In the late 1800s, legislators designated UNI (formerly the Normal School) as the state’s teacher training school. Today, great teachers and quality education remain the hallmark of Iowa, but our position in the country has fallen dramatically. We can point to political leadership for our fall from grace, from regent selection to institutional priority. UNI should be to Education as Iowa is to health care; as Iowa State is to agriculture. Today, teacher training and research is spread among Iowa, Iowa State, and UNI and each has become a competing force for legislative appropriation and policy manipulation (i.e. in-state student incentives). Competition is good, but it is not needed or necessary between our regent institutions. To elevate UNI, we must elevate its role in the regent minds. I call for an education chancellor (or pick a better title!), a sole point of leadership based at UNI to align all resources under the regents to maximize educational research, teacher training and extension. Iowa and ISU would become satellite entities of a unified College of Education, administration would be streamlined, research would be focused, and extension would deploy the very best practices across the state. Just as ISU operates Ag Extension, UNI should run Education Extension so we can reach the farthest corners of Iowa for life-long teacher development and best practice deployment. I would go even further to put AEA under UNI's purview which would align resources, practices and technology through existing infrastructure. As a leader in education, Iowa-based enterprises would be born to commercialize developments in curriculum, technology, skills development, tracking and more. UNI is critical to restoring Iowa’s educational leadership role. Solution(****): design educational programming alignment through UNI and establish UNI Education Extension service to support state-wide educational advancement.
To make Iowa #1 in education again, we shouldn’t aim for the bar, we must raise it. While bold, these policies and philosophies turn the ship and promise to restore Iowa’s educational stature.
Also worth noting, I will talk about the SAVE tax in my Water Quality policy post. It goes without saying, the SAVE remain in place for bonding programs until our state restores its educational status.
(*) Denotes level of difficulty