Education focus of legislative breakfast
The Fairfield Area Chamber of Commerce’s Legislative Breakfast Saturday at the Best Western Fairfield Inn featured a good-natured back-and-forth between the legislators and a local high school student.
Fairfield High School senior Jorge Whitley asked the legislators about how to improve middle school and high school education so kids don’t drop out before graduation.
State Representative Dave Heaton, Republican, agreed with Whitley that something must be done at the middle school level. He said he visits classrooms throughout his district and sees elementary school kids learning. However, when he visits a middle school classroom, he gets the sense the students are not learning.
Whitley suggested the reason is middle school is when students are first exposed to robotic teaching methods that are boring for both the students and the educators. He said the school should offer more hands-on training for kids that age so they can see how the material relates to the real world. He said the students need to feel they’re doing more than regurgitating words on paper.
Heaton said he agreed completely with Whitley’s assessment. He has a son who teaches middle school and his son agrees students need more hands-on learning. Heaton said the focus on that kind of learning needs to come from both teachers and the administrators that supervise them.
“Education has to live and it takes excellent teachers to keep it alive,” he said.
State Representative Curt Hanson, Democrat, said the country has taken the wrong approach to education and has attempted to impose methods that worked in other realms that don’t work with young kids.
“We can’t make education industrial like we’ve done with agriculture,” he said.
Whitley said there also is less investment in education than agriculture, and he attributed the difference to the delayed returns in educational investment. He said the gains from investing in agriculture can be seen in the following year’s crop yield, whereas the return on education may not be realized for many years.
State Senator Rich Taylor, Democrat, said he believes the focus should be at the preschool level because that is when kids become excited about education. He said the problem with modern education is teachers and students lack freedom. Teachers can’t vary their teaching styles too much because they have to prepare students to pass tests.
Taylor told the crowd about his own personal disappointment with the educational system. He was a gifted student but was not challenged in his classes. He was required to enroll in courses he had no interest in, and consequently he lost interest in schoolwork by the time he was a senior.
“I don’t want to see the same thing happen to others,” he said. “We need to give the students more freedom, and I didn’t have that. By the time they’re in middle school, we have to let the kids take charge.”
Whitley said middle school and high school students don’t get the same enjoyment out of going to school that younger kids do.
“Kids forget that learning can be fun,” he said.
Heaton said parents play a significant role in their children’s education. He asked Whitley if that was true in his case. Whitley said his mother was usually too busy with work to focus on his studies and that he was raised mostly by his grandmother. He said the pleasure he derived from school came courtesy of his teachers.
Whitley said he couldn’t speak English until the third grade. His elementary teachers were aware he couldn’t learn in the same way as the other students, but he said they did a great job of using whatever methods they could to get through to him and give him a proper education.
During an earlier discussion, Hanson mentioned he wanted to see more emphasis placed on guiding students toward the state’s community colleges. He pointed out that community college graduates tend to remain in Iowa, whereas graduates of the three state universities tend to leave.
The legislators also fielded questions from the audience about the possibility of an increase in the gas tax.
Heaton said there are a few issues that need to be ironed out before the gas tax is raised. For instance, he wondered what to do about hybrid and electric cars, since they use the road as much as gas-only vehicles but won’t pay the same in gas taxes. He also wondered what to do about trucks that run entirely on liquid propane (LP).
Hanson said the Legislature can’t wait for a perfect solution before it acts. He said a change to the gas tax is unlikely anyway because he doesn’t believe Gov. Terry Branstad is behind the idea. He said an increase to the tax could only come about through a grassroots movement.
Jefferson County supervisor Becky Schmitz asked the legislators what to do about the gap in coverage for mental health services. Heaton said the state has told counties how large their mental health budgets can be since 1996, and he didn’t think that was right.
“We don’t need to put a cap on budgets that lasts so long,” he said.
Taylor said the Legislature should find out what counties need rather than telling them what they need. Hanson said he wants mental health to follow the three “A”s: to be accessible, acceptable and affordable.