DES MOINES — Gov. Terry Branstad hits the road this week to drum up interest in his summer education summit, an event that marks the starting point for what could be next session’s most controversial issue: education reform.
Starting Tuesday the governor will host a series of town hall meetings leading up to a summit in Des Moines.
The sold-out event includes a who’s who of educators and education reformers, such as U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, author and Stanford University Professor Linda Darling Hammond and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, among its guests.
The topics discussed there — teacher pay, standardized testing, global work force preparation — will set the stage for an education reform package that will go to lawmakers when the General Assembly begins its work in 2012.
“That is very much the legacy he wants to leave,” said Linda Fandel, who left a journalism career of more than three decades earlier this year when Branstad asked her to become his special assistant for education.
“He’s looking toward the future, though; far more than his legacy, he knows that it’s essential for young people to have a world-class education,” she said.
But some are skeptical of what Branstad thinks reform means.
“It’s hard to answer the question given the current legislative background,” said Mary Jane Cobb, executive director of the Iowa State Education Association.
“They want to profess support for education, but can’t seem fund allowable growth … that leads to larger class sizes and fewer course offerings.”
Despite those misgivings, the IEA is one of the seven sponsors of the summit and Cobb is serving as a panelist on one of the discussions.
The association also plans to bring 100 teachers to the event, Cobb said, to make sure the “conversation includes practicing educators as participants.”
Setting up the team
Branstad sent a signal that he was looking for expertise outside of the usual Des Moines political and policy circles when he recruited Fandel from her job as editorial page editor of The Des Moines Register.
The same type of signal was sent when Branstad reached out to Jason Glass, the new state Board of Education director, who was working as a consultant in Ohio when the governor’s office called.
Fandel and Glass are the point people in the administration’s reform movement.
Rep. Jeremy Taylor, a Sioux City Republican who works as a high school English teacher and is the co-chairman of the House Education Committee, said there is talk among teachers about what will come out of the symposium.
“I think there’s always a concern when people start talking about reform because you don’t really know what that is until you see a plan,” he said.
Branstad made education reform a key platform in his 2010 campaign and continues to push the idea.
Pointing to national data, he said Iowa schools have been passed by other states, not because Iowa has gotten worse but because other states have gotten better.
“Just recently, both Indiana and Illinois have passed major education reforms,” Branstad said.
“Iowa needs to learn what’s been done in those states and other states and combine that with the best thinking in our state to improve education here.”
The two-day summit is divided into a set of speeches and series of panel discussions.
Some that will likely draw attention are ones on teacher compensation models, headed by Glass, and the one on attracting top talent to schools.
University of Northern Iowa Dean of Education Dwight Watson is one of the panelists for the latter. Watson said the panel is an opportunity for a discussion about “making teaching more of a profession.”
Money is part of the equation, he said, but so are better, more meaningful teacher evaluations that set rigorous goals and allow school districts to reward good teachers and, if necessary, shed the bad ones.
Fandel said education reform is an area where Republicans and Democrats can agree, and she doesn’t think politics will muck up the process.
That might be true, but already there are signs that at least one chance at an early consensus has been missed.
“I’m not aware that they’ve consulted our side of the aisle as far as speakers, topics, panels, format, anything. It’s pretty much been their design,” said Sen. Herman Quirmbach, D-Ames, chairman of the Senate’s education committee.
“We don’t have any preconceived agenda at this point,” Fandel said. “We want to hear from everybody … We obviously have some ideas of what is working elsewhere, (but) we’re not ruling anything out at this point.”