Priority: Education

Jacobs outlines goals of K-12 initiative


“It’s a topic that is vital to the long-term economic prosperity in this state.”

Reaching Higher Iowa founder Mark Jacobs thinks Iowa’s K-12 school system needs major changes to get the state back to the top of the country’s rankings.

In a meeting with the Times-Republican Thursday, the Des Moines native said he came back to the state in 2012 after years in investment banking in New York and as CEO of Reliant Energy in Houston, and he did not like what he found in the state’s public education system.

“One of the indelible memories I have about growing up in this state and going to school was when the Iowa Test of Basic Skills results came back,” Jacobs said, adding Iowa was one of the nation’s top states in education.

Since then, however, he said Iowa has fallen to the “middle of the pack,” in K-12 education.

“What really got me was, where was the public outrage?” Jacobs said. “I started doing a ton of research, I started talking to teachers at every level in Iowa, I started talking to policy-makers.”

While in Houston, Jacobs said he served as board chairman of KIPP Houston Public Schools, a large charter school network that served 9,500 students.

He said the demographics of the school presented challenges, such as 90 percent of students on federal free and reduced lunch, and 28 percent English language learners. However, due to community outreach efforts by staff and providing a good learning environment, KIPP had a 95 percent graduation rate over a 20-year period, and a 45 percent graduation rate from four-year colleges.

“I came away with two fundamental conclusions,” Jacobs said of Iowa’s situation.

The first was that the challenges in state K-12 education is systemic, and the second was that to build a successful system requires employers to be deeply engaged in K-12.

“When I looked at the business community’s engagement in K-12 issues in Iowa, what I found was there had been some engagement that had been sporadic over time,” Jacobs said.

He said he thinks there are four elements to fixing the systemic issues outlined: to measure and report efforts at improving education, to support educators and administrators, to attract the best educators and to build a robust school choice program in the state.

On measuring and reporting, Jacobs said the concept of annual academic growth could help show how well some students in Iowa are learning, and that measuring proficiency, which is the current measure of growth, is not sufficient.

He said research shows effective teachers are a bigger factor in student success than class size, and that the state must move above mid-level compensation for educators compared to other Midwestern states and the country.

School choice programs, Jacobs claims, have proven effective in the dozen most-improved states over the last 15 years.

“That may include public charter schools, magnet schools, open enrollment, may include some type of educational savings accounts or voucher type approach,” he said. “They all have a substantially more robust program than Iowa.”

In all, Jacobs, a former U.S. Senate candidate who lost the Republican nomination to eventual Sen. Joni Ernst in 2014, said competition may help what he called a “stagnant” system of state laws and regulations around K-12 in the state, adding many choices would benefit students.

“I think it goes back to the concept that healthy competition helps make everybody better,” he said. “My belief is the answers to all these questions exist within our educators.”

For more on Reaching Higher Iowa, go to reachinghigheriowa.org


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