Iowa Legislature Ready to Tackle Tough School Issues
DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — Legislative leaders of both parties said Wednesday they were willing to tackle the volatile issue of linking teacher pay to classroom performance despite enormous political pressure ahead of next year's elections.
It's a particularly difficult issue for Democrats because of resistance from important allies, such as teachers' unions.
"We're certainly open to looking at a compensation system that makes more sense," said Senate Majority Leader Michael Gronstal, D-Council Bluffs. House Speaker Kraig Paulsen, R-Hiawatha, said Republicans "absolutely" would be willing to link teacher pay with classroom performance.
Republican Gov. Terry Branstad has said he favors some plan that links pay and performance and will have draft proposals for overhauling the state's education system by the end of next month.
"Education reform and commercial property tax reform are going to be the centerpiece of the next legislative session," said his spokesman, Tim Albrecht.
Paulsen said the key to any package linking teacher pay to classroom performance is deciding how that performance is measured.
"There's always a trick of making sure you're measuring and rewarding accurately," said Paulsen. "The governor is clearly going to have some bold education proposals and if they are focused on student outcome and classroom performance, I think House Republicans will be very interested in them."
All sides have said they want to focus attention on education because student performance on standardized tests has slipped in recent years. Iowa students at one time led the nation on student test achievement, but they've slipped to the middle of the pack in recent comparisons.
At the same time, efforts to overhaul the state's preschool system appear to be fading. Branstad and Republicans lawmakers sought during the last session to scrap the state's free and universal preschool program with a voucher system where parents would pay according to their income. That wasn't approved, and both Paulsen and Gronstal said that issue is settled.
Gronstal said experts who Branstad brought in for an education summit this summer unanimously backed universal preschool.
"The experts he brought in from around the country touted the benefits of free preschool," Gronstal said. "We consider the subject debated, discussed and we've gone as far as we're going to go on that."
Paulsen said he wouldn't guarantee that the issue wouldn't again come up, but he said "there are other education issues that are clearly more likely to be discussed."
The governor is carefully laying the groundwork for overhauling the state's education system. He held the two-day education summit this summer and is holding a roundtable discussion with high school students at the Iowa State Fair on Friday. He plans to unveil a draft proposal by Oct. 1, and spend the next two months holding town hall meetings around the state to generate support for the package.
The political pressures next year will be intense. Not only is it an election year, but lawmakers are in new districts after this year's redistricting plan was approved.
Gronstal said he's urged Democrats to tackle tough issues.
"I've always said that 19 of 20 times, good policy trumps good politics," he said.