At some point I’ll try to write more about the candidate field in the school board election. But before early voting gets any further, I want people to know some things about Karen Woltman that they may not be aware of.
I am very pleased that Karen is running for the board. Karen first came to my attention through her blog, Education in Iowa, which she’s been writing since 2010. It has been an excellent resource for information and intelligent commentary on education policy issues, and in particular on education-related Iowa legislation. Her extensive writing on educational issues will give you a great sense of who she is; her campaign website identifies several posts in particular that are relevant to school board membership. She has consistently maintained a thoughtful, conscientious, and well-documented commentary on state and local education issues. Moreover, she demonstrates that it’s possible to advocate and to be persistent while also maintaining a measured, reasonable discourse—always focusing on issues and reasoned arguments, not personalities.
Karen also played a remarkable role in one particular educational issue. Karen was a member of the State Assessment Task Force in 2014-15. When the task force recommended that the state require all school districts to use the very expensive and time-consuming Smarter Balanced Assessments, Karen was the sole dissenter. She was concerned about whether the cost of the tests would reduce funding for educational programming, asking whether the tests would cause cuts to music, art, and world languages of the kind we’ve already seen here in our district. She also asked hard questions about whether Iowa school districts had the tech readiness to implement the tests—noting that several states had experienced serious problems with implementation.
Karen’s willingness to dissent from the committee’s otherwise unanimous recommendation is a great indicator of her independence and ability to resist institutional pressure and groupthink. Moreover, her dissent was persuasive enough that it helped derail the state’s movement toward adopting the Smarter Balanced tests. The legislature did not accept the committee’s recommendation, and it looks increasingly likely that the state will end up adopting a less expensive testing regimen instead. The word “single-handedly” is probably never appropriate in politics, but in my view Karen’s dissent was quite possibly the single most influential factor in changing the course of those events.
Karen’s not against standardized testing; in fact, she’s very concerned about addressing the district’s achievement gaps in reading, math, and science proficiency. But she knows that everything has a cost and that the usefulness of any testing has to be weighed against what’s being sacrificed to pay for it—and that ultimately teaching has to have primacy over testing. (Her involvement on this issue makes an interesting counterpoint to the candidacy of Janet Godwin, who is the chief operating officer of ACT.)
In her school board campaign, Karen is arguing for prioritizing issues of curriculum, instruction, and school climate. “Facilities are important, but whether our children are learning, and whether they feel safe and supported at school, is more important than the size of their gymnasiums,” she writes. “Our children need a school board that can work on improving facilities and, at the same time, work on improving the programs that take place in those facilities.” You can read more about her priorities and positions here and here.
Karen is not as widely known as some candidates, and lately some have taken advantage of that fact to try to portray her negatively and in my view unfairly. This has taken the oh-so-progressive form of defining her an as extension of her husband. (Karen is a lifelong active Democrat married to a Republican.) People have also criticized her choice to home-school her younger children through the district’s home-school assistance program. (Her oldest child is a student at North Central Junior High.) In fact, Karen’s decision to home-school her younger children is driven by her longstanding interest in educational practice and not by any extremism, parochialism, or desire to withdraw from society. She has been more active in public education than most of us, to its benefit. Again, if you want an accurate understanding of who she is, all you have to do is look at her seven years of public writing about education issues.
Karen also has a law degree and if elected would be the only board member with that background. I believe it is a very useful qualification and one that has served me well on the board.
Please elect this sensible, smart, capable person. If you’re interested, you can help Karen become better known by hosting a yard sign; contact her campaign at KLWoltman@gmail.com.