image By Senator Paul McKinley, Iowa Senate Republican Leader

The end of the school year is upon us. Students are scrambling to finish their remaining projects and finals, proud parents and grandparents are seeing their sons and daughters graduate from high school and college and energetic youngsters are eagerly anticipating the beginning of their summer vacation.

Schools are busy finalizing their budgets and preparing for next year. Since Governor Culver and legislative Democrats underfunded K-12 education by $162 million dollars while still spending the second most amount of money in Iowa history, schools are making deep cuts and property taxes are going up. Culver’s property tax increases are collectively estimated to be near $182 million but could be as high as a half billion dollars.

Through all of this, many teachers and staff members have been let go to ensure districts are operating with a balanced budget. When these layoffs are made, districts are forced to make decisions based on seniority – not necessarily on whether they are retaining the best teachers for the students in their districts.

This must change.

image A recent Register Editorial in the Des Moines Sunday Register does a good job highlighting the need to change the way we evaluate and promote teachers. “Seniority tends to be a big factor in who stays – it’s written into school district contracts – which can have devastating consequences for students,” wrote the Des Moines Sunday Register. “Putting the best teacher possible in every classroom should be everyone’s top priority. It’s mind-boggling that it isn’t,” they concluded.

Senate Republicans could not agree more.

Year after year, Senate Republicans have authored broad and sweeping education reforms in the Iowa Legislature to reform education. If enacted, our “pay for performance” law would be one of the boldest reform plans anywhere in the nation. Our “pay for performance” legislation was passed by the Legislature in 2006 but Governor Vilsack caved in to the demands of the deep pocketed union bosses who prefer the stagnant status quo. This, like many similar proposals to enhance student achievement and renew the legacy of Iowa’s proud heritage in education, has been defeated year after year by the party currently in power.

Case in point, when Iowa applied for President Obama’s Race to the Top grant program, our state’s application was denied. Governor Culver and legislative Democrats, like Vilsack, caved to the demands of powerful special interests and well-funded union bosses by voting down our efforts to revitalize our education system and make Iowa more competitive.

Incidentally, this is a rare instance where we find some common ground with President Obama. Obama has advocated for new teacher evaluations that reward the best teachers for higher student achievement and implement needed changes when student achievement falters.

Today, 20 to 25 percent of our students are one year or more below grade level. This drastic change in direction is one of the leading reasons why our eighth graders in 1993 were first in mathematics but have now fallen to 28th. Though we have spent billions of dollars, student achievement has stagnated and in many instances declined. The 2008 Iowa Condition of Education Report shows student proficiency has decreased over the past year in fourth grade reading, fourth grade math, eleventh grade reading and eleventh grade math.

We need more accountability. Everyone must be accountable for the success of our students. Though these children may be students today, we will be relying on them to be the leaders of tomorrow. Students, parents, schools, colleges of education and policymakers all need to be held accountable.

We need to pay our good teachers well and weed out those who are not meeting the necessary standards. There are excellent teachers with all levels of experience and they must be rewarded and those who do not excel need to move on.We must be clear, basing personnel decisions solely on seniority must end.

As it stands now, the rest of the world is leaving America behind and the rest of America is starting to leave Iowa behind. Simply throwing more money at the problem without real reform has not and will continue not to work.

We need dramatic reform and we need it now. If we fail to act, we are leaving our children, grandchildren and future generations of Iowans without the necessary skills they need to be productive members of society.

It’s time to put our students first by preparing them to be productive citizens who possess the necessary skills and knowledge to compete with any one else in the world. Our kids deserve the very best.

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