House, Senate OK Compromise Education Reform Bill

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — Though it may not be the bold piece of legislation Gov. Terry Branstad sought, an education reform bill was sent to his desk Tuesday.

The Legislature approved the policy-only measure, which was the product of a joint House-Senate committee. Both chambers had previously approved different versions.

Branstad and House Republicans had proposed increased teacher evaluations, holding back third-graders who do not meet reading benchmarks and competency tests for 11th graders.

The final version of the bill allows for teacher peer reviews and lets parents choose whether a third-grader should be held back or attend an intensive summer school reading program to catch up. It does not include a requirement for 11th-graders to take the ACT test, and instead allows them to take an Iowa skills assessment test, which provides the same information at much lower cost, said Sen. Herman Quirmbach, D-Ames.

Quirmbach said the greatest success in the bill is a system of annual assessments of reading ability, to be taken every year between kindergarten and third grade. The program will start in the 2017 school year, he said, and is aimed at catching children who are falling behind and providing assistance for them to catch up.

"We don't want these kids to fall behind. Reading is so fundamental to a child's success throughout their school career," he said.

Quirmbach faults the bill for not funding for the early-grade reading support programs, and said the Legislature find money for it next year.

Those who criticized the bill in the House focused on the lack of funding.

"I am concerned there are too many places in this report that are contingent on funding," said Cindy Winckler, D-Davenport. "To implement these areas we need to have the appropriation made."

Rep. Cecil Dolecheck, R-Mount Ayr, said reform doesn't have to be about money. It's about getting parents involved, engaging more students and having stricter requirements and testing. But he's concerned the bill doesn't go far enough.

"I'm not sure this is a first step," Dolecheck said. "We're afraid to take the first step in education reform. Maybe we will next year."

Branstad said in a statement that the bill was an important first step, but work was left to be done "to give all students a globally competitive education."

"That requires a great teacher in every classroom, a great principal leading every building, high academic standards and strong matching assessments," said Branstad, who has been pushing for broad education reform for nearly a year and had introduced a $25 million program.

In a statement, Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds said it's important that children struggling to learn to read will get more help.

"We look forward to working together in the next year to take bold steps to give children the education they deserve," she said.

The final bill is a policy-only measure, much of which will not go into effect until a future Legislature appropriates funding. The Senate had at one time budgeted new money — $17.5 million — for education reform, but the Republican-led House appropriated no new money. The two sides couldn't reach a deal on funding. In a separate funding bill, only about $2 million in new money is budgeted for a reading research center.
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