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Branstad floats 'transformational' education plans

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Gov. Terry Branstad unveiled his education reform ideas Monday. And there are some good ones.

Raising starting teacher salaries is a good thing. Paying top teachers more to model, mentor and lead their peers holds promise. Reducing a first-year teacher’s workload to give them breathing room to learn makes sense, as does beefing up educator evaluations.

Depending on many, many details to come, the $187 million package, phased in, cautiously, over five years, could bring some positive change. Branstad calls it “transformational” reform.

But by the time Branstad finishes delivering his Condition of the State speech this morning, these ideas will be overshadowed by his plans for significantly changing the way our state funds local schools. The governor says the current “allowable growth” model, which matches a big chunk of state aid with a smaller chunk of local property taxes, should be replaced with a system providing 100 percent state funding. It’s part of Branstad’s big plan to reduce taxes on all classes of property.

That’s going to spark a lively debate. Lawmakers will have other ideas. But the governor has vowed to accept no increase in state aid until his reforms pass. That may spark a showdown.

So it’s confrontation before transformation. That is, if you see this as transformation.

Transformation has become a malleable political buzzword. But if you think real transformation means pulling current educational approaches out by the roots and replacing them with entirely new and dramatically different approaches that seek to prepare our kids for the world they’ll actually be living in, then this is not transformation.

It could be reform. It may be improvement. It’s a first step, perhaps. And that’s not meant as a criticism, because, the truth is, real transformation wouldn’t pass the Legislature.

As I’ve said before, I think real transformation has a better chance of percolating from the bottom up, from local schools given more freedom and adequate, predictable funding to explore innovation. I fear that this top-down process will lead us to less local freedom. The governor insists there will be flexibility for local districts, but more state money usually comes with strings. And if there's one thing schools have already, it's strings. And mandates. And categories.

Nobody likes property taxes. But I need to know more before I decide whether trading lower property taxes for further diminished local authority is a great bargain, or good for education.

Branstad deserves a ton of credit for driving this debate. His political instincts are sound, and his heart’s in the right place. I’m just not convinced the Capitol is a place where transformational reform is possible.

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