In Iowa, a GOP governor charts a different course

DES MOINES – As his Republican peers in other states search for ways to cut public school funding, Gov. Terry Branstad is charting a different course. He’s doubling down on education.

Branstad, who was elected in 2010 as part of a resurgent GOP, has made proposals many Republicans would sneer at: raising minimum teacher salaries and offering incentive pay for teachers who take on more responsibilities – all by tapping $187 million in new school funding.

It’s an approach that reflects the lives of Iowa families, who send nearly all of their children to public schools and have felt deeply connected to local districts for generations.

“Ninety-eight percent of the kids in Iowa go to public schools. I went to public school and got a great education,” said Branstad, who likes to note that his daughter is a teacher. “I’m very willing to invest more resources, but I want to invest in an intelligent way.”

Branstad is pursuing his agenda at a time when other Republican governors are focused on slashing education funding, limiting teachers’ power and offering more options for students to attend private institutions.

Last summer, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie won passage of a plan to make it harder for teachers to get tenure and easier to strip it away. Indiana Gov. Mike Pence supports expanding an already extensive voucher program. And Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker wants to expand vouchers and freeze school spending.

While Branstad has proposed some of those ideas in the past, his education policies have generally been more moderate. His positions are borne out of both principle and pragmatism. With a split legislature – Republicans control the Iowa House and Democrats the Senate – he must propose a plan that has widespread appeal.

Iowa also is different from other states. The state identifies strongly with its small-town roots. Its 351 school districts enroll about 476,000 students, compared with roughly 32,000 who attend private schools. Nationally a higher percentage of students attend private school, with an estimated 49.6 million kids in public school and 5.3 million in private, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

Iowa does not have a voucher program for private school tuition, and the state has just three charter schools.

Branstad is seeking changes because Iowa schools are slipping. Twenty years ago, the state had some of the top standardized-test scores in the nation, but its ranking has fallen steadily to the middle of the pack. The governor and top aides have spent years researching new programs with input from education advocates.