Local legislators get educator feedback on reform blueprint

Charter school regulations, GPA requirements draw most debate

Governor Terry Branstad and his education advisers have held many town halls and forums around the state to get feedback on his proposed "One Unshakable Vision" blueprint for state schools.

Now it's the lawmakers' turn.

Six state representatives and senators took part in a dialogue with local education leaders concerning the blueprint Tuesday night at the Grant Wood Area Education Agency in Cedar Rapids. The group of four Democrats and two Republicans all have constituencies served by the agency.

The dialogue had more of an informal tone compared with some of the other events surrounding the proposed blueprint, with attendees dividing up among tables with their representatives and going through the strengths and weaknesses of the blueprint point-by-point.

The plans that received the most criticism were proposals to increase GPA requirements for prospective teachers, a retention-based third grade literacy test and relaxing restrictions to create charter schools.

"Charters by themselves are just a buzzword," said Sen. Tod Bowman, D-Maquoketa. "What could charter schools do that Iowa public schools haven't?"

The majority of the attendees had some sort of role in area public schools, either as a teacher, administrator or school board member. Superintendents of the Cedar Rapids, Marion Independent, Linn-Mar, College Community and Iowa City school districts all were present.

By the end of the dialogue, each of the legislators seemed to agree that the blueprint as is needed work. The point of disagreement was on how much change was needed, with Rep. Nick Wagner, R-Marion, taking the middle ground.

"As far as what's going to happen, your guess is as good as mine," he said. "Like every plan, there's good in it and also some not."

Rep. Vicki Lensing, D-Iowa City, called the blueprint a "moving target," but agreed that it was time for systematic education change.

"Education has been the same for a long time," she said. "We need to be open to maybe not doing everything the same, so it's not just one way for everybody."

The idea behind the blueprint that Iowa schools are struggling and need major change for students to succeed was disputed by Rep. Rob Hogg, D-Cedar Rapids.

"I actually think Iowa schools are doing quite well. I hear a lot that suggests some of this seems out of touch," he said.

Rep. Nathan Willems, D-Lisbon, and Rep. Lee Hein, R-Monticello also attended the dialogue.

In addition to their critiques, the attendees also came armed with their own innovative ideas for education reform. Emily Thomson, a mentoring and induction consultant with the Grant Wood AEA, suggested having her organization assist with some of the master and mentor teacher roles in the proposed, and now on-hold, four tier teacher salary structure.

"I think there are a lot of bright spots in the current system, we just need the flexibility and opportunity to expand on them," she said.

Jeff Schafer, a teacher at Prairie Point Middle School and 9th Grade Academy, said he came out primarily to learn more about the blueprint and to make sure his profession was well-represented in the process.

"I just wanted to make sure the viewpoint of teachers was expressed, it seems like we were left out of the process a bit up to now," he said.

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