Negotiations yet to begin on Iowa education reform

April 15 deadline looms for state's school districts to certify their budgets

Lawmakers working out a compromise education reform bill promised Tuesday to move quickly as an April 15 deadline looms for school districts around the state to certify their budgets.

But the five Republicans and five Democrats who make up the conference committee have yet to get into actual negotiations on the legislation.

That may happen today when the group meets for a third time. During the first meeting last week, the committee elected chairmen and adjourned. During the second meeting Tuesday, each delegation read highlights of their competing bills to one another.

Meanwhile, school boards are left guessing how money the state will deliver.

“It is critical timing, we’re a week out from having to certify those budgets, and while we can come back and incorporate any larger amount of spending authority, the fact is we still have to send out those reduction-in-force notices,” said Emily Piper, a lobbyist for the Iowa Association of School Boards.

Piper was one of more than 50 people who packed Tuesday’s hearing in Des Moines to hear co-chairmen Sen. Herman Quirmbach, D-Ames, and Rep. Ron Jorgensen, R-Sioux City, outline the legislation that passed their respective chambers.

Differences between the bills include the amount of state aid, career paths for teachers, expansion of home school authority, annual evaluations for teachers and evaluations for school districts.

“I’d like this done sooner rather than later,” Jorgensen said. “I’m willing to meet morning, noon and night, whenever we’re in Des Moines.”

Quirmbach said the overreaching goals of both reform packages are the same — namely to move the state up in national rankings. Iowa’s students score in the middle of the pack on some national tests although two decades ago, the state’s students routinely turned in top scores.

On Monday, Gov. Terry Branstad encouraged people who were worried about the bill not being ready in time for school district budget certification to call their legislators. On Tuesday, Branstad said he was “hopeful we can move quickly now” on the bill.

"The House bill has pretty much the reforms that we want,” he added.

Quirmbach said Branstad “doesn’t determine our timetable” for getting a bill out.

“We want to make sure that we do good public policy here,” he said. “I think we can make progress at a fairly good pace, but I want to be prudent about what we do.”

Piper’s advice to school boards is to budget for the status quo.

“We’re going based on the law, and the law requires us to plan based on what the funding is and at this point, it’s zero percent.”

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