Gov. Tom Vilsack of Iowa is stumping statewide to galvanize support to expand his state’s early-childhood-education system and strengthen high school course requirements.
Advocates of the changes say the Democratic governor’s recommendations are partly a reaction to concerns about the state’s stagnant, and in some cases slightly declining, student test scores. The troubling trends have gained more attention because of scrutiny under the federal No Child Left Behind Act. Iowa educators have also focused more attention on the achievement gap between the state’s growing number of minority students and their white classmates.
But most supporters of the reforms believe that promoting more rigorous high school requirements and improving the quality of child care, preschool education, and health care for the youngest children are vital to maintaining Iowa’s reputation as a national leader in K-12 education. Such steps, they say, are also critical to securing the state’s future economic development.
“We just need to be continually improving,” said Kris Bell, the governor’s education policy liaison. “It’s not at the point that the sky is falling by any means.”
The blueprint for Gov. Vilsack’s recent efforts grew out of the work of the Iowa Learns Council, which the governor appointed in September of last year to take a “holistic view” of the state education system from early childhood to postsecondary schooling.
The 37-member task force, which included state leaders from education, government, and business, released its recommendations in August.
Mr. Vilsack told the group to come up with a plan for enrolling 90 percent of Iowa’s children in “quality” preschool programs and ensuring that 90 percent of its high school graduates complete at least two years of higher education.
Although the council’s final report acknowledged Iowa’s high national standing in education, it also made a case for the need to seek immediate improvement or risk academic decline.
Among other conclusions, the report found that:
Fewer than half of Iowa’s high school graduates complete any level of post-secondary education.
Minority students graduate from high school at a far lower rate than the state average.
Not enough early-education and health-care resources exist for working parents.
And while the council encouraged increasing expectations for high school coursework and the adoption of voluntary preschool learning standards, it stopped far short of endorsing statewide academic standards.
Iowa has adamantly defended its right to remain a local-control state and resisted the national trend of adopting state education standards.
Judy Jeffrey, the interim director of the state department of education, said state officials intend to use the “bully pulpit” to engage school districts about how ready high school students should be for college, the military, work, and technical schools. The department also will host community forums in the coming months to discuss high school graduation requirements, which are set at the local level.
“I think we need to push ourselves a little harder at middle school and high school,” Ms. Jeffrey said.
The Iowa Learns Council and other advocates are seeking more than encouragement to revamp the systems of early-childhood education and child care, however.
Jim Wise, the executive director of the Urban Education Network of Iowa, a coalition of city school districts, said the group’s own research on how to improve high school performance and close achievement gaps always pointed back to bolstering early-childhood education.
“We do feel that we’re going to get the optimum success in these other areas in the long run if we solve this early-childhood-education goal,” he said.
Of the roughly 70,000 children ages 3 and 4 in Iowa, only 2,360 are in what the state calls “high quality” preschool environments, Ms. Jeffrey said.
A study by the Child and Family Policy Center in Des Moines found that in 2001, federal, local, and state spending on education and development for each Iowa child up to age 5 totaled $621, compared with $5,302 per student ages 6 to 18.
Charles Bruner, the executive director of the research center, said that in addition to determining what skills and services children need to start kindergarten ready to learn, the state must create comprehensive health-screening and intervention services.
“If we really think this is important—we know this has long-term benefits—put it in first, then put questions in about how we make the rest of the budget work,” Mr. Bruner said.
But the total price tag associated with improving early-childhood education—some estimates run as high as $440 million—has some state leaders questioning the political motives behind the governor’s effort.
Senate President Jeff Lamberti, a Republican, said Iowa is projecting a shortfall of up to $400 million in its estimated $5 billion fiscal 2006 budget as a result of funding increases across government programs.
He said it’s unrealistic to believe that the state could afford a new initiative when it has failed to fully finance other projects already under way, including an effort that aims to raise teachers’ pay and bolster their professional development.
“I think this has more to do with the November campaigns than a serious attempt to move education in Iowa,” Mr. Lamberti said.
Ms. Bell said the governor has not detailed how he would pay for improvements to early-childhood education and child care. She said, though, that giving more children access to high-quality preschool and child care “matters personally” to Gov. Vilsack.