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Iowa Groups Seek Statehouse Focus on Early Years

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A broad coalition of Iowa's most powerful education groups is pressing lawmakers to put early-childhood and parenting education at the top of the Statehouse agenda.

Their call comes as veteran Gov. Terry E. Branstad prepares his own education push for the legislative session that began last week, including a proposal focused on babies and young children at risk. But the governor has called for spending about $5.2 million, an amount the advocates argue is just a starting point.

In contrast, their group--the Iowa Early Childhood Community Coalition--has said about $150 million--$30 million a year for five years--is needed to make a significant improvement in the lives and school performance of at-risk children. That formula deliberately mirrors the state's vaunted 2-year-old effort to put more computer technology in schools. The technology initiative will dole out a total of $150 million by 2000.

"Over the years, it seems that public educators have responded to conditions ... rather than seeking solutions," said James E. Wise, the executive director of the Urban Education Network, whose member districts enroll a fourth of the state's schoolchildren. "What we're trying to do now is not accept those conditions and go to the root cause."

Mr. Wise said the urban superintendents feel so strongly about the issue that they have decided to forgo their usual list of legislative priorities to make early-childhood development their sole focus this year.

The coalition embraces most of Iowa's heavy-hitting education organizations. In addition to the urban network, it includes the Iowa Association of School Boards, the School Administrators of Iowa, the Rural Schools of Iowa, the Iowa PTA, the City Superintendents Group, and the Child and Family Policy Center, a Des Moines think tank and advocacy group.

The group has sent literature on its proposals across the state, published opinion pieces in newspapers, and plans to take the word personally to many lawmakers.

Test Scores Dip

Mr. Wise and other coalition leaders point to slipping test scores as evidence that the problems faced by struggling families have already affected student achievement and that those families need help.

In both of the last two years, Iowa has lost its first-place standing on the ACT college-entrance exam, and some standardized reading test scores have also dropped. That's powerful medicine in Iowa, where residents have come to expect top national rankings on tests.

The coalition also cites the growing body of brain research suggesting that stimulation and nurturing during the earliest years is critical for later school success. That research has been important in persuading a number of states to beef up early-childhood programs in recent years.

As envisioned by the coalition, help for the youngest Iowans could include family support, child-development training for their parents, preschool, or intensive reading help in the early grades. Programs would be overseen by a local coordinating group that could include representatives of the school district.

"It's not a school agenda, but a community agenda," and would be administered as such, said Charles Bruner, the director of the Child and Family Policy Center in Des Moines.

In another twist on the lobbying usually done by schools, coalition members have asked that strings be attached to the money they want. At the end of five years, the coalition aims to have all 4th graders reading at grade level.

The group's members also promise to reduce the proportion of students identified as at-risk when they enter school. Each community group would monitor and report results, which would determine future funding.

Focus on Education

"We're willing to step up to the line on that," said David Darnell, the superintendent of the Mason City schools and the president of the City Superintendents Group, which represents superintendents from the state's 60 largest districts.

Legislative leaders say there's already strong interest among their colleagues in the state's youngest children. Many expect Iowa's schools to be this year's signature issue, in part because Gov. Branstad wants to leave his mark on education before he steps down at the end of the year. The four-term Republican signaled that desire a year ago by appointing a blue-ribbon panel on educational excellence chaired by a longtime political ally, Marvin Pomerantz.

So far, the economy is cooperating with the governor's plans: the state expects a budget surplus this year of some $800 million.

The governor's budget proposal, released last week, largely follows the recommendations of the commission headed by Mr. Pomerantz. Under the budget plan, local collaboratives of existing agencies would receive grants to provide services to the youngest children, including parent training and pre-school for at-risk 4-year-olds. Mr. Branstad's office did not return several calls seeking comment.

Funding an Issue

House Majority Leader Brent Siegrist, a Republican, said there is broad consensus among legislators that additional money should be spent on babies and young children. But "how we do it is open for some discussion," he said, adding as well that spending $30 million this year was beyond the realm of possibility.

Many teachers are waiting for action. Marcele Kaduce teaches an extra half-day of kindergarten at Theodore Roosevelt Elementary School in Mason City to children who enter school already behind in learning skills. She knows her program makes a difference: over the past six years, 45 percent to 60 percent of Mason City's extended-day kindergartners finish the year on a par with their regular half-day classmates.

"Many children don't have the language skills they would have had years ago," she said. "I don't think parents have the time to talk and listen and explain. ... I see a lot of parents in survival mode."

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