Plan To Raise Standards Sparks Debate in Iowa

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A plan by the Iowa Education Department to toughen school-accreditation standards has touched off a debate over who will pay for school improvement, and whether small rural districts would be forced to consolidate if they do not meet minimum standards.

The standards, tentatively approved by the state board of education, would require elementary schools to offer all-day kindergarten and half-day pre-kindergarten. They would also nearly double the number of courses high schools must offer. No source of funding for the requirements has been specified.

State education officials have said the standards are intended to improve the quality of education, not force consolidation. But that explanation has not satisfied many critics, especially superintendents of smaller districts, who say they fear the legislature will not provide the necessary funding.

"We're not opposed to the philosophy that the education department has in raising standards, but they're very tough criteria to meet with no funding," said Boyd W. Boehlje,8president of the Iowa Association of School Boards, which has actively opposed the measure. "The standards don't provide any alternative to forced consolidation."

Based on Carnegie Report

The legislature directed the education department in 1984 to draft tougher accreditation standards based on recommendations in the report by the Carnegie Forum on Education and the Economy, "A Nation Prepared: Teachers for the 21st Century."

"These are the rock-bottom standards below which we believe a school should not function," said David E. Bechtel, director of administrative services for the education department. The standards, he added, were meant to be the "ideal minimum."

Under the standards, which would take effect in 1989, high schools would be required to offer 41 units, mostly year-long courses, compared with the 27 units now required. By 1992, districts would have to offer pre-kindergarten services to 4-year-olds, although attendance would be optional. Also that year, kindergarten classes would have to operate for five and one-half hours a day for 180 days.

The standards also call for upgraded health education, global education, writing proficiency in foreign-language programs, marketing education in vocational programs, and guidance counseling for elementary-school students. All of the standards, except for kindergarten and pre-kindergarten, would apply to private schools.

Districts unable to meet the new standards would have to forge collaborative efforts with neighboring districts, Mr. Bechtel said. The department has provided financial incentives for districts to share programs, courses, and entire grades--all alternatives to precipitating the wholesale closing of small schools.

However, if these alternatives still do not allow districts to meet the standards, they could be forced to consolidate, he said.

The cost of implementing the accreditation standards in public schools statewide would be about $150 million--about 15 percent of the current state precollegiate-education budget--the education department estimates.

The state board will take final action on the standards in November or December, after preparing a more detailed fiscal-impact statement.

The legislature does not have to act on the standards, which were approved "in principle" by the board in August, Mr. Bechtel said. However, the Assembly's administrative rules committee could delay implementation of the standards.

Gov. Terry Branstad, who has the power to block the measure, favors increased accreditation standards, said Douglas E. Gross, the Governor's chief of staff. The Governor is waiting for the cost estimates before deciding whether to support the proposal, he said.

The Iowa Education Association also favors the proposed standards, said William L. Sherman, spokesman for the group. "It's been many years since the standards were updated, and they are needed to ensure equity and opportunity throughout the state," he said.

Districts' Concerns

Spokesmen for the state's districts, however, are less supportive of the proposed changes.

Robert T. Howard, superintendent of the Bettendorf school district in eastern Iowa, questioned whether the state has underestimated the cost of implementation.

The cost of the proposed standards for Mr. Howard's 4,300-student district would be $1.48 million the first year and about $1 million every year thereafter, he said. In addition, the district would have to build new facilities to house the pre-kindergarten and kindergarten students.

"We don't have any empty classrooms," he said.

Des Moines school officials have estimated that the cost in their 30,000-student district will range from $15 million to $20 million annually.

Marvin L. Judkins, superintendent of the 604-student Coon Rapids-Bayard consolidated school district, said the standards would cost his district about $50,000 a year.

"The standards will help ensure a minimum quality of education, but if the legislature doesn't support us financially, it will be hard on us," Mr. Judkins said.

'Reorganization' Proposed

Adding to school officials' concerns about consolidation was a recent report by an education-department task force on several alternatives for school "reorganization."

School consolidation is an especially controversial issue in Iowa, which has 436 districts, many with fewer than 500 students.

The task force's report, which was adopted by the state board and sent to the legislature, recommended four ways of consolidating districts: Setting a minimum enrollment of 1,000 students per district; shrinking the total number of districts to 99 to match the number of counties in the state; creating new incentive programs to encourage districts to merge voluntarily; or establishing an independent commission to study the issue.

Education groups predict, however, that lawmakers will not take action on the report this year because the issue is too "hot" for an election year.

"Every community is proud of its school," noted Mr. Sherman of the isea

Agreed Mr. Boehlje, "Consolidation is the kiss of death for rural legislators."

Vol. 07, Issue 06

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