Former CEO pitches ideas on how to improve Iowa's educational system

Mark Jacobs is campaigning for several measures he believes will help improve education in Iowa.

Jacobs, who grew up in Des Moines, returned to the state about six years ago after careers in New York and Houston and founded the nonprofit organization Reaching Higher Iowa. He also ran for U.S. Senate against Joni Ernst in the Republican primary in 2014.

Jacobs said he remembers Iowa being one of the top two states in education when he was attending Roosevelt High School in Des Moines.

“We’ve lost that leadership position — not because we’ve gotten worse, but because we’ve been stagnant,” he said Wednesday in an interview with The Nonpareil.

The state needs to make the following key changes, Jacobs said:

• Implement statewide assessment aligned to academic standards that will measure each child’s annual academic growth.

Currently, he said, the state assessment does not align with state standards, and the test rates students by percentile, which doesn’t translate to an objective score that can be used to track individual students’ progress.

Many school districts use their own assessments to track student growth, but Jacobs said districts could benefit from each other if they used a common measuring tool.

• Offer competitive compensation to attract and retain the best and brightest teachers.

The most cost-effective way to do this is to target young, “rock-star” teaching candidates, Jacobs said.

• Provide continuing education opportunities for teachers and principals.

“We believe we have significant underinvestment in our professional development,” Jacobs said.

The state needs to “put educators in a position to be successful,” he said.

Of course, different districts spend different amounts on professional development. And the state does provide supplemental funding to public schools for professional development.

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• Give families options in education and environment to best suit each child and modify Iowa’s school charter law to attract high-quality charter schools to the state.

“We believe one of the things we need to do in Iowa is to build more choices,” Jacobs said.

Critics, however, see the expansion of charter schools — particularly without the approval of local school districts — as a threat to adequate funding for public schools.

While public schools are the backbone of the state’s educational system, Jacobs argued, charter and online schools could help fill some of the unmet needs.

Jacobs served on the board of directors for a string of charter schools in Houston while living in that area. On average, he said, charters operate on 72 percent of a public school’s budget, adding, “There’s really not a lot of correlation between academic achievement and dollars spent.”

“We have the opportunity to learn from other states,” he said, citing examples where per-pupil public school funding has gone up because of cost-savings achieved by independently-operated charter schools.

Currently, Iowa law puts local school districts in charge of approving and overseeing charter schools. There are three in the state: one in Des Moines, one in Cedar Rapids and one in Storm Lake that’s a collaborative venture with Iowa Central Community College and Buena Vista University.

Jacobs said he would like to see the state’s business community get more involved in education, since they are affected by the work readiness of Iowa’s high school graduates. Most of the members of Reaching Higher Iowa’s board come from the business community.

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