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Two Midwestern States, Two Different Approaches to Education

Iowa and Indiana are two Midwestern states that are taking radically different approaches to education, with one increasing funding for public education and the other taking it away.

In Iowa, Gov. Terry Branstad proposed $187 million in new public school funding to raise the minimum salary for teachers and to offer incentive pay for teachers who take on more responsibilities.

In Indiana, the state Supreme Court recently upheld the nation’s most expansive school voucher program, allowing low-income and middle class families to send their children to private schools with state funding.

Why the differences, for two nearby states?

Iowa: Raised Teacher Salaries and Incentives

“There is a strong tradition of public education in Iowa,” says Stephen Murley, superintendent of the Iowa City Community School District. About 476,000 students attend public schools, according to state officials, compared to only 32,000 in private school, far less than the national average. “Private schools don’t capture as large a portion of the population as you might see in other states. Iowa is also fairly restrictive on any other alternative to public schools.”

While Branstad’s plan sounds ideal for public schools, there is a catch: he won’t address increasing general public school funding until his reform measures are passed.

“I understand what he’s doing, trying to create an urgency and back it up with finances to develop schools that are meeting the needs of our students,” says Marlene Johnson, superintendent of Iowa’s Columbus Community School District. “I understand the need to create scenarios where our schools are improving, but wish he would realize that until those things are in place, we need a way to support our districts, pay our bills, and pay our teachers.”

The Iowa legislature also hasn’t presented school administrators with the allowable growth for their budgets for the next school year, which it is supposed to do a year in advance.

“By law we were supposed to know a year ago, but they haven’t been following their own rule,” Johnson says. “We’re having to create budgets with no knowledge of how much money we’re going to have.” Her district has already cut staff, and is planning to increase class sizes to nearly 30 students in preparation for a possible lack of budget growth.

Indiana: Private School Options with State Money

In contrast to Branstad’s plans for increasing funding for public school teachers, Indiana’s voucher program will take away money that the state legislature would normally appropriate to public schools, says Lisa Tanselle, staff attorney for the Indiana School Boards Association, who worked on the voucher case. And the General Assembly is considering expanding the system to include more students. “The message for everybody is that our General Assembly believes in choice, and there are lots of choices now for parents,” Tanselle says.

The voucher program creates a competitive environment among schools across the state, says Thomas Little, superintendent of the Metropolitan School District of Perry Township in Indiana. “The question on the table is, will all schools be held to the same standards of accountability? If we reach a point where all schools are held to the same standards of accountability and are meeting the needs of all children who walk through the door on a non-selective basis, then we as a school district do not have a problem with the voucher system,” he says. “When it comes into play that schools are allowed to cherry pick their students, that’s where the problems arise.”

The Indiana legislature believes that a competitive school environment will create a more customer-focused educational delivery system, Little says. “One of the dangers of a competitive school environment that I’m beginning to see in the state is school districts are not as open to sharing their success models as they once were,” he says. “My meetings with my colleagues are not as open or as free flowing of thoughts and ideas as they once were. It’s just the nature of the environment that’s been created — it’s a competitive environment that’s based on grading schools and achievement test data.”

The Role of Administrators

With education changing rapidly from state to state, administrators have the opportunity to play a pivotal role in transitioning to new models, Murley of the Iowa City school district says.

“As administrators, we’ve been very passive and reactive in these discussions,” Murley says. “It’s stepping up the pressure on us to take an active role, and use our pedagogical expertise and leadership skills to move public education forward in a direction that will benefit everyone.”