House lawmakers approve scaled-back education plan

DES MOINES – Iowa House lawmakers on Wednesday approved a plan to water down Gov. Terry Branstad’s education reform plan, scaling back a key priority for the governor, who has pledged to make the state’s public schools among the best in the nation.

In a 52-44 vote, legislators approved the bill modifying Branstad’s $187 million education plan, which would have boosted minimum teacher pay and offered bonuses to senior teachers who take on tasks such as mentoring. Under the revisions, school districts could opt-out of the plan.

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 plan.

Rep. Ron Jorgenson, R-Sioux City, the education committee chairman, called the legislation “a significant investment in education.” And Branstad in a statement thanked lawmakers for their work. He has said he is confident that districts will choose to participate in the 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 with a budget deficit after implementing the plan, when factoring in the cost of replacing teachers taken out of the classroom for leadership work.

During Tuesday’s lengthy session, Democratic and Republican lawmakers approved an amendment to the legislation that would provide 2 percent increases to general K-12 school funding in the 2013-2014 and 2014-15 school years, and provide funding to prevent local property tax hikes. That proposal would cost $77.3 million in the first year and $51.3 million in the second.

That funding level is less than the 4 percent increases for 2013-2014 and 2014-2015 approved last week by the Senate, where Democrats hold the majority. Republicans in the House said 2 percent increases were more affordable.

“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.

But Democrat Rep. Sharon Steckman, of Mason City, said that 2 percent increases could mean many districts would need to make cuts, once they factor in inflation and rising costs for insurance and transportation.

“Two percent will not help these districts, we need a solid four percent,” Steckman said.