Lawmakers to debate Branstad’s education reforms

DES MOINES – Lawmakers approved a plan late Tuesday to increase funding for K-12 schools in the next two academic years, but debate over whether to approve a watered-down version of Gov. Terry Branstad’s education reform proposal continued.

In a 52-45 vote, the Republican-controlled Iowa House approved 2 percent funding increases for schools in both the 2013-2014 and 2014-2015 school years – less than the 4 percent increase approved last week by the Senate, where Democrats hold the majority. The funding was handled as an amendment to the education reform legislation.

“Two percent is a good number for the reason that we can fully fund two percent allowable growth,” said Rep. Chuck Soderberg, R-Le Mars, who sponsored the amendment.

The plan would cost $69 million in the first year and $43 million in the second.

Republicans in the House have scaled back Branstad’s $187 million education plan, which aims to improve Iowa schools by boosting minimum teacher pay and offering bonuses to senior teachers who take on other tasks, such as mentoring. Under revisions made to the legislation last week by Republicans in the House Education Committee, school districts could opt-out of the reforms.

Branstad wanted to mandate that minimum teacher salaries go from $28,000 a year to $35,000. Under the House Republican proposal, the salary increases would go up to $32,000 for districts that participate in the reform plan.

House Republicans struck-down measures introduced by Democrats to increase minimum teacher salaries over $32,000 and create a program to provide extra state funding for certain needy school districts with children on the free and reduced lunch program.

Branstad spokesman Tim Albrecht said the governor supported the direction the bill was moving in the House and said the governor was confident that districts would want to opt in to the reform plan.

But Mary Jane Cobb, executive director of the Iowa State Education Association, which represents about 34,000 teachers, support staff and other educators, said she wasn’t so sure.

“Everybody will not opt in. Districts will look at a cost benefit analysis for them. Some of them will say this is not worth it for us,” Cobb said.

Under the plan, funding would be provided to the districts on a per-pupil basis. According to analysis by the nonpartisan Legislative Services Agency, as many as 130 of the state’s 348 districts could end up in the red after implementing the plan, when factoring in the cost of replacing teachers taken out of the classroom for leadership work.

Before Tuesday’s hearing, lawmakers filed a slew of amendments to the bill, with Republicans seeking to fund voucher programs and change teacher standards, and Democrats trying to boost minimum teacher salaries, expand pre-kindergarten classrooms and increase general school funding.