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Fill in the blank: “World-Class _________________”

CHRONICLE GUEST VIEW: In the Public Interest

July 25, 2011
Deborah D. Thornton
The phrase “world-class” is overused and meaningless today. It is used for everything. Whether or not something is “world-class” changes on a daily basis. Remember the first cell phones? World-class! That was only 20 years ago and today we consider them paperweights.

However, Governor Branstad and Lt. Governor Reynolds are to be commended for trying. On July 25-26 they’re holding the promised Iowa Education Summit in Des Moines, designed to focus on the stagnate nature of K-12 educational achievements in Iowa. The theme is “World-Class Education, World-Class Workforce.” In announcing the summit, Lt. Gov. Reynolds said, "By bringing together leaders from both the private and public sector, in addition to world-renowned educational leaders, we hope to provide open dialogue to encourage and implement real change in Iowa classrooms.” If you have any interest in educational reform, pay attention.

Governor Branstad’s proposed preschool tuition credit program for low- and moderate-income families to send their children to preschool passed the Republican-controlled Iowa House of Representatives, but was ignored by the Democrat-controlled Senate. Legislators opposed to school choice should spend time talking with Michelle Bernard, Chairman of the Bernard Center for Women, Politics and Public Policy, who said, “School choice is a civil rights issue. It is the natural extension of Brown v. Board of Education, of what Thurgood Marshall and Dr. Martin Luther King talked about – access to great schools for families.”

Several Governors were successful this year in school reform. Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels (R) signed legislation creating the nation’s largest school voucher program, the “School Scholarship Act.” This program has the widest eligibility standards of any currently in place for low- and middle-income families. It doubles the previous cap on the scholarship tax-credit program, and provides a tax deduction for out-of-pocket educational expenses.

In Oklahoma, Governor Mary Fallin (R) also signed significant reform legislation, prohibiting social promotion of students after the third grade. Governor Fallin said, “Sending an illiterate child on to higher grade levels is setting that child up for failure.” She also signed a bill requiring the use of letter grades, A-F, to evaluate individual schools. Individual schools within a district will now earn grades.

The most significant aspect of both pieces of legislation is that they were required in the first place. Why are we passing children into the next grade if they can not master the current work? How has the educational complex avoided being evaluated? We can not expect “World-Class” anything if there is no standard for review and no requirement of accomplishment.

According to the Foundation for Educational Choice, “research consistently finds school voucher programs have improved the academic achievement of both the students who transferred to private schools and those who remained in public schools.” The achievement gaps for low-income and minority students in Iowa are real. The Iowa Legislature should revisit expanded open enrollment for all children, not just preschool. All children deserve the opportunity to attend the school best for them, whether public or private, not limited by their parents’ income.

The amount of money spent on public K-12 education in Iowa in 2006, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, was over $4.2 billion, an increase of a billion dollars since 2000. The number of students educated fell by 11,700 to only 482,584. On an annual per student basis, this was a spending increase of $2,000 per student, from $6,604 to $8,769. Student achievement did not climb to “World-Class” status during that time.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of the Public Interest Institute. They are brought to you in the interest of a better informed citizenry.

Deborah D. Thornton is a research analyst at the Public Interest Institute in Mount Pleasant.



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