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Iowa needs Democrats for education reform


December 13, 2011
By Deborah D. Thornton , Toledo Chronicle, Tama News-Herald

Every Democrat in the Iowa Legislature was opposed to Governor Branstad's preschool program, and many have expressed opposition to his proposed education reforms. However, not all Democrats in other state Legislatures are opposed to the use of scholarships to address education failure. All Democrat Legislators are not opposed to education reform.

The mission of Democrats for Education Reform (DFER) is to "encourage a dialogue within the Democratic Party on the need to fundamentally reform public education." They support reforms such as parental school choice, funding following the child, closing failing schools, new charter schools, and increased teacher accountability. DFER members support reforms to tenure systems and merit pay for teachers. Leaders of DFER base their support on the premise that the Democrat Party was formed to "fight on behalf of our nation's most vulnerable individuals." The most vulnerable individuals are our children.

DFER members believe, like New Jersey Governor Chris Christie (Republican), that the education status quo must be challenged and that "tinkering" around the edges is not working. They believe that the government monopoly is derailing education for low-income and minority students and that 50 years after Brown vs. Board of Education the continued failure of the government schools in teaching minority students is unacceptable. In Iowa the government education monopoly is also failing middle-class white children. What we have done for the last 50 years is not working today.

DFER has chapters in California, Colorado, Indiana, Michigan, Missouri, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Rhode Island, the state of Washington, and Wisconsin. In these states DFER groups have been influential in education reforms proposed by Republican Governors, and have offered both key support and valuable critiques. Unfortunately, Iowa does not have a branch of DFER and no work is being done here to establish one.

What the DFER does not recommend is refusing to address educational problems. They do not recommend that Democrat Legislators refuse to work towards and find common ground with Republican Legislators and Republican Governors by opposing all reform proposals on a straight party-line vote. They do not recommend continuing to do the same old thing, but just spending more money to do it.

Iowa Senate President Mike Gronstal and Democrat members of both the Iowa Senate and House of Representatives would do well to adopt such an approach before the next Legislative session. We must find common ground. A straight party-line vote against everything the Republican-controlled House of Representatives and Republican Governor propose is not acceptable.

Above all, Democrats for Education Reform do not recommend dawdling while children's lives are wasting. In that they are in agreement with Governor Christie, who said at Governor Branstad's Education Summit in July, "We can decide today that the interest of these children is more important than how we decide political winning and losingTo say that change is necessary does not mean that you hate public education.

"Forget about who you want to blameLet's put that aside and let's see what we can agree on," Christie said. "Can't we agree that there is failure?There is failure, and that failure has real-life ramifications for those children." Christie finished, "Why is it that we still operate a [education] system that does not reward excellence and does not give consequences for failure?"

Membership in Democrats for Education Reform is free Iowa Legislators should sign up because Iowa voters do reward excellence and issue consequences for failure at the ballot box.

Public Interest Institute's POLICY STUDY, "We Must Find Common Ground, Children's Lives are Wasting," can be viewed at

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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