Our golden dome won't be the home of school transformation

We started at the summit. We ended up in a sausage factory.

But really, that was education reformís fate all along. Eventually, inevitably, the high hopes of Gov. Terry Branstadís education summit last summer would be brought low by the Statehouse grinder.

This week, the governor warned that lawmakers, especially Democrats, who fail to embrace his reform package will pay a price at the polls. But letís face it, once the governorís team set aside a marquee debate over teacher pay, there wasnít much left to capture votersí imagination. Iowans are not hitting the streets to demand holding back third-graders or banishing would-be teachers who can't earn a B-average. Not even state schools chief Jason Glasssí ACT showdown stirred passion in the hustings.

Branstad says we need a ďnew Senate,Ē controlled by Republicans. Admittedly, Senate Democrats havenít really offered their own compelling vision of educational transformation, to their discredit. They've mostly played defense. And itís natural for Branstad to want his side in charge of things.

But be careful what you wish for, governor. Itís not 1995. This isnít the Republican Party of Marvin Pomerantz, Doug Gross or Brent Siegrist. This is a Republican Party now being led by Ron Paul aficionados and staunch religious conservatives. These are not exactly what I'd call unshakable allies of public education.

This GOP is not clamoring for Glassí vision of a centralized, top-down, core standards-driven, test-till-they-drop reform effort. Itís a party that seems more in the mood to eliminate Glassí department entirely and vaporize the core curriculum. Maybe get some old-time religion back in the classroom.

Glass wants to "professionalize" teacher pay, with mentoring, assessments and incentives. I suspect the new majority would be far more interested in dramatically altering collective bargaining rights and public employee benefits. I only hope they share those plans with voters before the election, instead of planning a Wisconsin-style surprise party in 2013.

But, basically, I think the lesson of this 2012 reform push (and, frankly, some previous ones) is that real educational change in this state is not coming from beneath the golden dome, no matter who runs the joint. The Statehouse, now caught in a Gordian tangle of unyielding political alliances, old grudges and rigid ideologies, is really only capable of doing more harm than good to our schools. With that in mind, this voter may embrace this looming failure as a success.

I'm beginning to realize that the best thing the state can do is provide more flexibility to local communities to try new educational approaches. Free up some money, scrap some mandates, rip up the playbook. Let's redeploy the school improvement effort from the tired old political battlefield in Des Moines to some fresh new scenery.The summit is great, but I suspect real solutions are hiding in the foothills.

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