Tuesday, December 6, 2011

The Blueprint

For several weeks now, many people have been asking me to comment or blog about the blueprint.  I have resisted those requests for about as long as possible, always giving the excuse that I was waiting to hear more details, because to me it seemed as though the most important detail had been left out: the cost.  We still don't have the answers to those questions, but there are a few details that have begun to emerge that have given me a reason to raise my eyebrow. 

First Grade students showing off their finished gingerbread
houses they made.  Demonstration of learner performance goals
Quality Producers and Collaborative Workers.  Yes, it was also
fun and probably created memories that will last a lifetime!
One of the centerpieces of the reform plan was to be an overhaul of the teacher compensation system.  For those of you unfamiliar with teacher compensation, teachers are compensated according to years of service and degrees of education.  The basic salary structure is laid out in a matrix, and a teacher with a Bachelor's degree with three years of experience could expect to earn less than someone with a Master's degree and ten years of experience.  Now, there are certainly problems with this system and I am in agreement that we should look for new and innovative ways of compensation, but I am not completely sold on this one.  As I said in my opening, the details are what will determine which components of the plan rise and fall. 

A few weeks ago, the Governor announced that he was tabling the teacher compensation plan so it could be studied further.  That could be, but I think a lot of it had to do with the fact that there was (and is) no way to pay for this plan, and that lack of adequate funding may cause the entire plan to become yet another casualty of education reform in this country.  On one hand we have a Governor that says he is fully committed to restoring the education system to the best in the nation, even the world.  On the other hand, the allowable growth formula for this year is zero.  That's right, zero.  Believe me, I understand the challenges of trying to balance a budget when there is little revenue available, we lived through a major budget reduction last spring here at Hudson

But it is hard to take a plan like this serious when the answer to the funding dilemma is that we have enough money, it just isn't being used efficiently.  I suppose one could take offense to such as statement. Is there an assumption that perhaps money is being wasted?  It was not until documents were released over the weekend under the FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) that we truly had that 'aha' moment.  My esteemed colleagues suspected that many or most of the categorical funds would be tapped to pay for the plan (a move we all object to), but I don't think anyone suspected the SAVE funds would be on the table.  There was no mention of schools who have already bonded against or obligated those funds.  In Hudson, we are no different.  Those receipts are being used to pay back our General Obligation bonds, a move that keeps property tax rates down.  Is this a misunderstanding of how Iowa school finance works?  A re-appropriation of those funds would  inevitably cause property taxes to rise.  Not a good plan for someone who ran on a platform of property tax reform!

Setting the money factor aside there are pieces of the plan that I am supportive of, after all who wouldn't be:  attracting and supporting talented educators, creating educator leadership roles, improve and expand the Iowa Core, a new assessment framework, ensure third grade literacy (although I have a concern with the punitive retention component), and of course anytime anywhere learning.  Sure I could go on, or even delve into these items in detail.  But the bottom line is that financing this package is going to be a pretty big hurdle to jump, and the answer isn't in re-appropriation of money.

Jamie Volmer spoke to school boards and superintendents a few weeks ago and gave an interesting analogy.  He said that we need to stop viewing eduction as an expenditure in the budget, but rather as a revenue or investment.  Well educated citizens get good paying jobs and pay taxes.  Well educated citizens improve the quality of life in our communities, contribute to society, and keep crime rates down.  A poorly educated citizenry, well the exact opposite is true.

I believe we are building two new prisons in Iowa right now.  According to the Center for Creative Justice it costs Iowa taxpayers approximately $30,000 a year to incarcerate an inmate, and the prison population in Iowa has increased by 340% from 1980-2006.  The cost to educate a student in Hudson for one year is $6,058.  Which would you rather pay for?

The education blueprint: sure there are parts of it that I am not too crazy about, and there are parts of it I want to hear more about.  At least we have a conversation started, I will give Department of Education Director Jason Glass credit for that.  They guy has certainly taken his share of criticism and body blows lately, but he should be credited for making education reform in Iowa a topic of conversation around the dinner table, and very soon in the halls of our legislature.  Let's make sure this conversation doesn't die on the vine for lack of funding.  We need to vet the ideas, find out which ones have merit and are good for Iowa schools, and figure out a way to implement them.  The ones that we are not so hot about, lets talk about why and figure out if there is another alternative.

I just don't know if we have the political will to put up the dollars it will take to make anything positive happen.  When the plan was released I was cautiously optimistic.  Now....just cautious.

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