When Governor Chet Culver took his oath of office in January, he became Iowa’s 40th chief executive and the only governor in the nation who has worked in the classroom in the past 20 years. Early in his career, Culver taught government and history at Roosevelt and Hoover high schools in Des Moines, where he also coached football and basketball. Culver, the father of two young children, talked with Parent Times about his goals for Iowa’s education system in the coming years.
What priorities have you set for higher education in the state?
We are first and foremost giving the Regents institutions additional financial help to recruit faculty and staff. That money could also help stabilize tuition because there will be flexibility in how they use that $25 million we’ve committed. We’ve also promised roughly $12 million in the next several years to create the Center for Regenerative Medicine at The University of Iowa. We hope to lift the ban on stem cell research [Note: this bill passed the Iowa House and Senate in late February] and let the researchers at Iowa lead the way in all types of research.
The other initiative is the All-Iowa Opportunity Scholarship. I’m concerned that Iowa is near the bottom in need-based access to higher education. We’re shutting out more low- and middle-income kids than almost any state in the country. I’ve proposed a program that would allow $5 million this year to help roughly 1,000 high school students graduating in 2008. It’s money that can be used to attend a community college or a Regents institution.
What did you learn as a classroom teacher, and how are you drawing from that experience in your new executive role?
I think as much as anything, I really understand the immediacy of the needs our teachers, parents, and administrators are experiencing. I’ve been on the front lines as a teacher and a coach. As a result, I know our goal must be to be the very best in education.
To reach that goal, one, we can expand early childhood education to every district in the state. Two, we need to increase teacher pay to the national average. Three, we’re looking at a Senior Year Plus program to give high school seniors a chance to earn up to a year of college credit. Only about half of our seniors have the opportunity to earn any college credit. I think it will help reduce dropout rates, and tell kids in Iowa that if you work hard and play by the rules, we’ll give you a chance to go to college, whether it’s a community college or one of our Regents institutions.
Creating a diverse learning environment is a priority at The University of Iowa. What recommendations do you have to help the state’s universities recruit and retain students from diverse ethnic and cultural backgrounds?
We have to redouble our efforts. The All-Iowa Opportunity Scholarship that will give low- and middle-income kids a chance to go to a Regents institution will help with that effort. I think Senior Year Plus will also help us because it opens doors to kids who would otherwise be shut out.
Your wife, Mari, has a bachelor’s degree and a Juris Doctor from Iowa. Can we expect allegiance to the Hawkeyes from your family?
I’ve always been a big fan of all of our Regents institutions. My wife is definitely a Hawkeye.
One interesting note is my uncle, Bill Happel Sr., played football at Iowa in the 1950s. He played in the Rose Bowl and scored a touchdown in that game. His son (my cousin), Billy Happel Jr., played as a receiver in the mid-1980s, and he also played in the Rose Bowl and caught a touchdown pass.
Is there anything else you’d like to tell parents?
This spring, Iowa will have the chance to appoint four new Board of Regents members. That’s a chance to rededicate ourselves to excellence in higher education. Based on my experience at a land-grant institution—I attended Virginia Tech University and played football there, and went to public schools my whole life—I appreciate the power that comes with top-notch public education at every level. I want to be a governor who’s remembered for his commitment to education. There’s nothing more important to me.