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Education issues were the focus of the Legislative Forum held in Mount Ayr Saturday, January 22.
About a dozen constituents met with 12th District State Senator Mark Costello and 24th District House Representative Cecil Dolecheck to get updates on the current legislative session and to ask questions of the legislators.
Both Costello and Dolecheck mentioned this series of forums will be their last. After recent redistricting, Costello’s district will no longer include Ringgold County, and after 26 years in the Iowa House, Dolecheck has announced his intention to retire at the end of this legislative session.
Costello opened the meeting by listing several of Gov. Kim Reynolds’ priorities the Iowa legislature will consider this session. Included in that list are returning the budget surplus to taxpayers, broadband Internet, a 4 percent flat tax, corporate tax rates, retirement income tax, farmers’ capital gains, renewable fuels, tort reform, school choice, and Medicaid.
He added the legislature will set their budget targets earlier this session than they have in the past. One of those targets is a 2.5 percent increase in state aid to schools.
Dolecheck currently serves as the assistant majority leader in the Iowa House. His list of priorities includes tax relief, child care, mental health, and education.
Dolecheck explained that one recent accomplishment in education was adding the position of special education director to the list of school staff positions that qualify districts for additional state funding for the sharing of services.
However, the legislation adding that position included language that decreased the weighting of the rewards for other shared positions. Dolecheck said 121 school districts could lose as much as $7,300 as a result.
He said he was currently introducing a bill that would restore the weighting to original levels, something he hopes to have in place before districts finalize their budgets for the 2022-2023 school year.
Following their opening remarks, the legislators opened the floor for questions.
Mount Ayr teacher Katie Coulson suggested a proposed $1,000 stipend to Iowa teachers should be expanded to include all school staff.
Dolecheck responded by saying the available funding for the proposal can only go so far. He suggested that if passed the legislation should allow local districts to decide how best to use those funds for their district staff.
Mary Ellen Devereux Taylor questioned the recent controversy surrounding the availability of certain books in school libraries.
Costello said he didn’t want to get into some of the things that have been found in school libraries. Some of those things, he said, are not appropriate for anybody, let alone for school-age kids. He added he believed the vast majority of schools are doing a “pretty good job” with regard to maintaining appropriate library materials, but some, he said, “have an agenda.” Parents should know what is being offered in their libraries.
In prefacing her remarks, instructional coach and teacher Abby Elliott said Mount Ayr’s school library catalog is available online for anyone interested in reviewing it.
Her main question dealt with a proposed House File 2060 that deals with overview of a school’s social studies curriculum that goes so far as to mandate that teachers publish their lesson plans online. She said all Mount Ayr curriculum follows Department of Education guidelines and is reviewed by district administration. A requirement the produce lesson plans online would only serve to create more work for teachers in a time when they are overburdened already.
Neither Dolecheck nor Costello were familiar with House File 2060, but Dolecheck said he would look into it. He added that such proposed legislation might be an over-reaction to recent controversies. He said the aim is probably an attempt to allow parents to get information more efficiently. Elliott agreed with providing parents more involved with their children’s education, but the conversation could be more informal rather than legislated.
Money for schools
Devereux Taylor asked why schools need to struggle financially when the state has a budget surplus.
Costello replied that all agencies want more money, but the legislature needs to respond to genuine needs. He said schools have received substantial increases over the past years, but he claimed too much of the additional funding went to administration rather than to classroom teachers.
Dolecheck said two areas that saw budget cuts last year were corrections and public safety. He said it’s difficult to give more to some and cut others.
Costello noted that fewer students are enrolled in Iowa schools than in the past. He quoted that the state currently spends roughly $17,000 per pupil, but he did not elaborate on that figure.
Ideas to attract new teachers
Instructional coach and teacher Jill Weehler asked if the legislators had any ideas on how to attract new teachers to the profession.
Dolecheck said military or professional pathways could be devised to allow individuals to count their life experiences and acquired skills toward teacher certification. He also suggested eliminating the PRAXIS test that serves as a gateway to certification for graduates of college education programs. Those who do not reach an established benchmark on those tests are denied certification. He said he would rather depend on the recommendations from the colleges who know their students best. He suggested that local school boards could decide for themselves who they wanted to hire. He added the Iowa State Education Association supports such changes.
Retired teacher Joyce Weehler said such a move would lower standards. Jill Weehler said if a graduate couldn’t pass the PRAXIS test, she wasn’t sure she wanted them in the classroom.