Historic education reform bill becomes law
Iowa’s historic education reform legislation became law on July 1.
The bill, signed by Gov. Branstad at North High School in Des Moines, was the culmination of bipartisan work in the Legislature. For education stakeholders, however, the law marks a new beginning.
The centerpiece of the legislation creates a teacher leadership structure to raise student achievement. The bill also raises minimum salaries for teachers, expands online learning options for students, and creates pilot projects designed to explore competency-based education.
“This year’s legislature is a prime example of how government should work,” said Mike Cormack, policy liaison for the Iowa Department of Education.
“Between the two aisles, they have some large differences on how to move education forward,” said Cormack, a former teacher and legislator. “But they incorporated compromise – ‘compromise’ is a good word – in order to achieve the greater good.”
The legislation will bring together education stakeholders – Area Education Agencies, educators, parents, to name but a few – to implement various elements. The new law:
- Implements the largest teacher leadership structure in the United States. This structure provides top teachers a chance to take on more instructional leadership responsibility alongside school administrators, which will strengthen teaching throughout schools. It also provides more support for new teachers and fosters greater collaboration for all teachers. The leadership structure is a multi-year commitment, with the first year focused on planning. About $3.5 million in planning grants has been set aside for school districts that join the system. Beyond that, districts will receive more than $300 per student a year in new money. Cormack says even though the program is optional, he’s confident that districts will want to participate. “We feel the merits of the program will make districts want to sign up for it,” he said.
- Pays teachers more. Between raising the minimum salary to $33,500 and providing extra pay to teachers who accept leadership roles, opportunities now exist to help retain talented people.
- Expands Iowa Learning Online, a state-run system that has provided high-quality courses online and through the Iowa Communications Network since 2004. The expansion provides additional learning opportunities for students whose districts don’t offer certain subjects. “When we have a student who wants to learn, say, German, we have a moral obligation to do everything we can to meet that request,” Cormack said.
- Creates pilot programs in competency-based education, an approach that advances students based on their mastery of content rather than age or seat time. “When a student demonstrates competency in a certain subject, he or she can move along – as opposed to having to sit a number of days in a class that’s already been mastered,” Cormack said. “If a student has mastered Algebra I, for instance, she won’t have to wait for her classmates to catch up before she can start Algebra II.”
- Changes the minimum instructional time required in a school year by giving school districts a choice between 1,080 hours or 180 days. Previously, the school year was measured by a minimum of 180 days. The new flexibility allows schools to make up snow days by gradually adding time to the school day, rather than tacking on extra days at the end of the school year. “It’s especially important because we live in an area where we can have long stretches of inclement weather,” Cormack said. “Superintendents should be able to focus on the safety of the students rather than having to be concerned about extending the school year.”
- Creates college loan programs for teaching candidates. This program will be available to high-achieving students who want to teach in high-need areas. “Anything that allows for our top students to be attracted to this profession is great for our education system,” Cormack said.
- Creates a simplified approach to connecting teachers with job openings in schools by establishing a statewide web-based education job posting system that will make the processes for hiring and applying for jobs more efficient.
- Increases school funding. School funding will increase 2 percent next year, with an additional 2 percent bonus. School funding increases 4 percent in the second year.
- Grants more flexibility for home-schooled and private school students.
Before any of these legislative pieces can be launched, committees, task forces and groups will determine how each element should be rolled out to ensure success.
The Iowa Department of Education is expected to issue formal guidance on the legislation this summer.
“As with anything this big, we know there will be bumps in the road going forward,” Cormack said. “But the benefits of this new system far outweigh the stagnation this state has been experiencing. We will build on past strengths, but innovate the system to deliver a top-quality education.”