June 4, 2013

Gov. Terry Branstad signed what he deemed a transformational education reform bill into law Monday but cautioned that it won't spur instant results since most of the programs will be phased in over five years.

"This is an ongoing process of continuous improvement," Branstad said. "Now we need to move it into the implementation stage and look at how we're progressing in terms of these new achievements and what kind of additional fine-tuning or improvements we can make."

Branstad held the signing on the auditorium stage at Des Moines North High, and he was surrounded by about 40 high school students and a group of lawmakers and business leaders.

The Republican governor said it was painful to acknowledge that Iowa had slipped over two decades from being a national education leader in student achievement to middle of the pack. He had made the education reform a priority during this year's legislative session.

Many of the ideas in the bill were generated from a 2011 education summit Branstad initiated. Last year, lawmakers created several task forces and studied teacher evaluations, compensation and early childhood assessment. Branstad said those task forces provided the details that led to the compromise legislation passed last month as the legislative session wound down in a flurry of budget, education, and tax reform bills.

The bill provides additional funding for schools, starting with an additional $133 million of basic school funding - a mix of permanent and one-time money - for the year that starts July 1.

It also increased money for districts that adopt a program to raise minimum teacher pay and offer leadership incentives. Minimum teacher salaries will be increased to $33,500 for the districts that opt in to the reform plan. The current minimum is $28,000.

Mary Jane Cobb, executive director of the Iowa State Education Association, the state teachers union, said the higher minimum pay will help recruit new teachers to the state. But fewer than 2,000 out of Iowa's 35,000 public school teachers will get a raise, she said.

Under the new rules, some teachers may be designated model teachers, mentors or lead teachers. Each position allows teachers more time to work with other teachers to develop skills and offers additional pay.

The signed bill also implements new childhood assessment tests for students before kindergarten and once they are enrolled in schools as kindergarten students.

School district funding will change, too, replacing the former allowable growth payment system that was a combination of state aid and local property tax money with more direct state funding. Branstad said that helps eliminate the disparity of funding between districts with high property values and those with less valuable property.

Cobb said teachers are closely watching how the pieces of the new law are implemented.

It calls for a task force to study teacher evaluations, which could be critical in how the state moves forward, she said. Initially, the bill called for teacher evaluation to be tied to standardized student test scores, which worried educators, Cobb said.

Teachers improve when they get quality feedback from someone evaluating them after seeing them teach, she said.

The teachers union also plans to monitor the shift from local tax support to state payments, which could subject school funding to political pressures in the Legislature. This year, for example, school funding increases were held back until much of the governor's reform package was passed. Holding funding hostage to policy issues is a worry, she said.

"What's going on in the schools and classrooms is too important to be subjected to that kind of political back and forth," she said. "Where the money comes from and whether it's a stable source is really something we have to watch over the next few years to make sure we don't go backward."