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August 21st, 2010

A Renewed Vision for Iowa Education

By Sen. Paul McKinley

It’s that time of year again.

The Iowa State Fair is coming to a close and students are busy relishing the waning moments of summer vacation – a time that only seemed to fly right on by. Soon, they will once again tackle tests and textbooks, await the newest lessons from teachers and professors and fill their after school schedules with a whole host of activities.

Most Iowans are proud of their local schools because Iowa has a rich educational heritage. Yet we must not let pride blind us from the reality that we have allowed the standards, expectations, and accountability measures to slip, leaving our students at a growing disadvantage in the global marketplace.

Today, 20 to 25 percent of our students are one year or more below grade level. This drastic change in direction is one of the leading reasons why our eighth graders in 1993 were first in mathematics but have now fallen to 28th. Though we have spent billions of dollars, student achievement has stagnated and in many instances declined. The 2008 Iowa Condition of Education Report shows student proficiency has decreased over the past year in fourth grade reading, fourth grade math, eleventh grade reading and eleventh grade math.

We graduate over 90 percent of all Iowa high school students yet nearly 23 percent of Iowa high school juniors did not meet already watered down proficiency standards in reading and 22 percent did not reach the bar in mathematics. This doesn’t make any sense and devalues the diplomas awarded to students who actually meet basic academic achievement standards.

Senate Republicans have real solutions to help ensure students and teachers achieve at higher levels while providing parents and taxpayers with greater transparency and accountability for their success.

First and foremost, we need to properly re-establish the definition of education. Iowa has a proud educational heritage because we have already made it about preparing our students to achieve success and be productive citizens. We believe education should be about achievement and teaching our children the necessary skills they need to successfully compete in the global marketplace.

On one hand, parents, employers and community leaders agree the purpose of education is to develop and prepare students to be productive citizens and possess the skills and knowledge to compete in the global marketplace. On the other hand, the elite educational establishment fosters the notion the purpose of education is to promote equality, diversity, social justice and self-esteem. Sadly, educating our children is no longer necessarily an academic endeavor – it often seems more of a social experiment. Education must be about academics and teaching our students the skills they need to succeed.

Secondly, we must concentrate on the fundamentals again. We do not believe we need to re-invent the wheel. Oftentimes we are just moving our students through our system before they have learned the fundamentals of reading, writing, math and science while our establishment elite instead chases after fads and gimmicks derived from a wayward social agenda. It is troubling that Governor Culver and legislative Democrats would rather concentrate on bullying legislation or mandating how much a child should exercise a day instead of concentrating on the fundamental skills that our students need to achieve success in this global economy.

Third, we believe our students will respond to heightened expectations if we challenge them. There are many examples where children in Asian countries or in India are learning calculus in junior high while students in Iowa may not learn it until high school and college – or worse yet – never at all. We are experiencing a an international achievement gap and we must aspire to take the steps necessary to close it. We believe students will respond to the challenge if we provide them with world-class standards, ambitious benchmarks and a rigorous curriculum grounded in the fundamentals of reading, writing, math, science, history and civics.

Governor Culver and the Culver Democrats in the Legislature have approached academic standards by prescribing a one-size-fits-all, top-down, experiment on our students and teachers. Attempts to create a statewide “core curriculum” have limited the flexibility of local teachers, parents and school boards.

Lastly, we believe we need more accountability and transparency. Everyone must be accountable for the success of our students. Though these children may be students today, we will be relying on them to be the leaders of tomorrow. Students, parents, schools, colleges of education and policymakers all need to be held accountable. We need to pay our good teachers well and weed out those who are not meeting the necessary standards.

With nearly 60 percent of Iowa’s state budget devoted to some form of education spending, Iowans have every right to expect an educational product that prepares our students for college and employment.

We have seen huge increases in property taxes courtesy of Governor Culver and per pupil funding has increased by approximately 50 percent since 2001 and yet we have not seen a heightened level of student achievement. We must never allow the level of spending on education to be the sole yard stick that measures our success.

The rest of the world is starting to leave America behind and the rest of America is starting to leave Iowa behind. More money is not the answer. We need dramatic reform and we need it now. If we fail to act, we are leaving our children, grandchildren and future generations of Iowans without the necessary skills they need to succeed.

I firmly believe that Iowa has a wonderful educational heritage. When we get back to the basics by enacting our Senate Republican reforms, we will again be able to put our students first by preparing them to be productive citizens who possess the necessary skills and knowledge to compete with anywhere and with anyone else in the world.

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