Breaking Points

It is a myth that schools “close” for the summer.  It is also a myth that teachers don’t work in June and July.  Take a visit to your local school and you will see marching bands getting ready for summer parades and preparing for the fall season, you will see the weight room filled with students who are active in summer sports or preparing for next season, you will see summer classes of all types, and you will see teachers spending time together doing all kinds of professional learning.

The one thing that does slow down this time of the year is public school advocacy.  Legislatures aren’t in session, teachers are busy doing their summer learning, and important resource decisions for school districts for the coming year have now been made.  But, do you know who stays very busy all year long?  Advocates for vouchers, “school choice”, charter schools, and everyone involved in the industry of making a buck off of schools stay very busy.  Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos continues to work very hard to advocate for steering tax dollars to the charter school industry this summer (

It is critical that advocates for our public schools continue speak out.  At the end of the year I noticed an increase in stories like this one about teachers reaching their breaking point with students exhibiting extreme behavior (  There are things that can make this situation better, but they require training, manpower, and other resources that schools simply don’t have as they continue to tighten their belts year after year.

Republican legislators in Iowa have told us for several years that schools can get by with minimal increases to school budgets.  The Iowa Policy Project shows here that school aid has increased an average of 1.7% per year for the last nine years (  There is no way that schools can maintain necessary mental health services and training at that rate of spending.  While those legislators are busy telling Iowans that we can’t afford adequate increases in school funding they will have increased business tax credits almost 50% for the 10 years from 2011-2021 (  The Iowa Fiscal Partnership points out that Iowa gave away $42 million in 2018 to corporations that paid no state income tax.  That amount could have provided a 1% increase to Iowa schools for next year.

Secretary DeVos likes to talk about “choice”, so let’s talk about it.  Iowa legislators have a choice.  They can continue to line the pockets of giant corporations with tax credits or they can begin to restore adequate funding to Iowa’s schools.  That’s a really simple choice and it is really more a choice for Iowa’s voters than it is for our legislators.  Iowa’s Republican legislators have made it clear what their priorities are, now it is time for Iowans to reclaim our history as a state that values public education.

In an era when states across the country are discovering that charter schools create an environment where corruption becomes rampant (, Iowa must rebuke those who would take our public tax dollars and steer them to vouchers, religious schools, and those who want to turn a profit.  Iowans must insist that our public schools are able to offer the type of mental health support that will reduce extreme student behaviors.  Iowans must also recognize that teacher shortages are a real thing and that unless we do something now, our schools will find it harder and harder to make sure qualified teachers are in front of every class (

Secretary DeVos has a huge megaphone through which she serves as a shill for the charter school and voucher industry.  She has allies with deep pockets like the Koch Brothers ( who want to starve public education.   In the other corner, public schools have teachers and parents who understand how critical it is that our schools have the resources they need to provide for the ever-increasing services that they are expected to support.  Investment in public education reaches far beyond the classroom (  Can teachers and parents stand up against the likes of billionaires like Ms. DeVos and the Koch Brothers?  I don’t know.  It feels like they are winning more often than they are losing, but we can’t afford to give up.  We have to step out of our comfort zones and shift the narrative.  The narrative has to be about what our public schools need in order to serve our young people.   The “choice” Ms. DeVos talks about doesn’t have to be between underfunded public schools and a charter schools that are becoming more and more corrupt as tax dollars keep flowing into their pockets.  Student choice will increase as public schools are able to provide more options

My son is getting ready to start his senior year as an education student at Drake University.  He hasn’t chosen teaching as a profession to get rich and he didn’t choose education as some sort of political statement.  He wants to help young people learn; it’s really that simple, and yet I hope he refuses to accept the notion that Iowa’s tax dollars are better spent in corporate pockets or in the hands of those who are looking to get rich in education.  I hope my son and his generation of young teachers will feel confident to speak out and protect Iowa’s most important resource, our young people.  Until he joins the profession, it’s up to us feisty, veteran teachers to be heard and demand that Iowa do what is right for our students.  It would be a shame if Iowa teachers had to go to the extremes that teachers in Oklahoma, West Virginia, Arizona, and Kentucky have had to go to in order to be heard, but make no mistake, Iowa teachers have a breaking point and it may be closer than you think.



Dear Speaker Upmeyer (So you like accountability and oversight…)

Dear Speaker Upmeyer,

I want to say up front that I don’t know a lot about health care legislation. It’s not my expertise and I know that.   But, I couldn’t help notice that 425,000 Iowans are losing their current health care provider through our privatized Medicaid system ( That seems bad, but I’m certainly no expert. I have friends and family who utilize Iowa’s privatized Medicaid system and they, like those in this article, tell me that there have been cuts to services, long waits for needed medical care, as well as a lot of new red tape. It doesn’t sound like it’s going that well, but I’ll leave that up to the experts.

I do know a little bit more about Iowa’s schools. You made an interesting statement in the Des Moines Register article about the negotiations with UnitedHealthcare. You were quoted as saying, “It is unfortunate that UnitedHealthcare wanted more money for less oversight and accountability, which is unacceptable. I want to thank Gov. Reynolds for standing strong in her negotiations.” So, if I’m reading this right, you believe it is important that oversight and accountability are important when it comes to how we spend taxpayer dollars.

See, here’s the thing. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos was just in town holding a closed door meeting with lobbyists advocating that public dollars be sent to private schools and homeschooling parents ( Private schools and homeschoolers have much less oversight and accountability than public schools, and yet your party is supporting legislation to promote vouchers (I know you don’t like to call them vouchers, but show me a bill that doesn’t look like a voucher and I’ll call it whatever you want) which would funnel taxpayer dollars to those schools.

I’m just curious, is your party in favor of strong oversight and high accountability or not? A Cedar Rapids Gazette article in 2015 found that more than 10,000 students were receiving tax credits to attend private schools in Iowa, but that the state wasn’t doing anything to verify that the students receiving the credits meet the criteria to receive them ( Iowa taxpayers are supporting private schools to the tune of over $37 million ( with little to no oversight and little to no accountability, and yet Ms. DeVos, the Koch Brothers (through their minion Drew Klein), and willing Iowa legislators are eager to put more of our money into the pockets of private schools and homeschool parents with no plan for more oversight to protect taxpayer dollars.

I’m learning more about health care legislation so that I can say with authority what is already being said by a lot of smart people, which is that the privatization of Medicaid in Iowa has been a disaster.   For the moment, I’ll leave that up to the experts. As for Iowa’s schools, the Iowa legislature continues to underfund the needs of Iowa’s public schools. Iowa’s inability to provide funding that keeps up with the costs of educating Iowa’s young people is causing cuts throughout the state of Iowa ( leading to fewer teachers, as well as reductions in services and resources.   In this environment, Iowa’s governor welcomed Betsy DeVos to a closed-door meeting to divert resources away from public schools.

Either you are a believer in holding those who receive taxpayer dollars accountable or you don’t. If you believe in accountability you will stop supporting legislation that would funnel our state resources to non-public schools who don’t have near the accountability of our public schools. If you are really for school “choice”, you will support funding public schools so that they don’t have to continue to offer fewer choices for the 93% of Iowa students who attend them. If you really believe in oversight, you will insist that the Department of Revenue makes sure that the millions of dollars in tax credits going to private schools are currently going to those who they are intended for.

You see Madame Speaker, it’s not that Iowans aren’t willing to have an honest conversation about what is best for Iowa’s schools (or health care, or our environment, or taxes, etc.) it is that we want an honest conversation. Let’s let the Koch Brothers, big insurance interests, and those who want to profit off of our tax dollars among others take a seat on the sidelines while we discuss what is best for Iowa. Let’s be for accountability and oversight for ALL of Iowa’s tax dollars, not just some of them.


Pat Kearney

Dear Secretary Devos, Welcome to Iowa!

Dear Secretary DeVos,

I see that you were in my hometown yesterday.  I was excited to see that you were taking time away from stripping protections from sexual assault survivors ( and cutting funding for student loan forgiveness to those who do public service work ( to visit little old Iowa.  I was eager to come and see you speak to Iowans about the work you are doing.  But, I guess that wasn’t in the cards.  Instead it seems that you met behind closed doors with a handful of Iowans, most of whom are far-right lobbyists.  No teachers.  No students.  There are rumors that a public school administrator might have been there, but since the meeting was closed to the public and closed to the press, I guess we might never know.  I did see that Koch Brothers lackey Drew Klein was there; thank goodness that the Koch Brothers had a seat at the table.  We certainly won’t know what was discussed, but hey, thanks for coming to Iowa.

Actually, I have a pretty good guess what was discussed.  You were discussing using public dollars to fund private schools.  You were discussing legislation that would insure that affluent suburban private schools were getting more tax dollars.  I would guess that you discussed being sure that homeschool parents get a few more public funds in their pockets.  I am guessing the words choice and competition were used quite a bit in the meeting.  Those buzzwords have been used all over the country to strip money from public schools and put it in the hands of private for-profit schools and it has failed time and time again (  But, again, thanks for coming to Iowa and meeting with 6 or 7 people who already support the type of plan that have been so unsuccessful in your home state of Michigan (

If you were selling something that Iowans were interested in, wouldn’t you hold a rally?  If you were selling something that Iowans were in favor of, wouldn’t you invite the press in to talk about it?  Why hide?  Well, you know the answer as well as I do.  Iowans don’t want public dollars spent on private schools (  No candidate ran on a voucher platform in Iowa.  You know Iowans don’t want it, so you have a closed door meeting to appease the Koch Brothers and rally some lobbyists and then you scoot out of town to do what you can to run down public education somewhere else.

The funny things is that Iowa’s public educators would really like to have a conversation with you.  We’d love to talk about how we can serve a student population that is coming to us with increasingly unique needs.  We do have achievement gaps that we would love to address, but to get at the needs of ALL of Iowa’s young people that come through our doors we need resources and that isn’t happening.  Iowa’s Republican legislators are driving us to austerity.  Budgets that don’t keep up with cost of doing business are forcing schools to cut staff and eliminate programming.  Iowa’s public schools want to talk about what is best for Iowa’s students, but we can’t get a seat at the table.  You see Secretary DeVos, we don’t see the education system as a competition.  Instead, we see each student as an opportunity to make the world a better place.

While I’ve got your attention, as someone who understands how this stuff works, can I ask you a favor?  My neighbors and I aren’t all that fond of our local public pool.  It’s really busy, understaffed, it’s starting to show it’s age a little bit, and they let absolutely anyone swim.  We were wondering if you could help us set up a tax credit so that we could build a private pool in our neighborhood.  With our private pool we could just make it available to the local kids, it would be cheaper to operate because we wouldn’t have to have safety features like chlorine or lifeguards, and we would definitely keep out any kids who couldn’t swim; those kids can use the public pool right?  So, who would we talk to about getting a tax credit for this pool?  Is there a cabinet secretary willing to come to Iowa and meet with 5 or 6 of us “Private Pool Advocates” and maybe a few of our lobbyists?  Or is that just plain crazy?

Well, thanks for coming to Iowa I guess.  Maybe next time I’ll get a chance to say hello.


Patrick Kearney

Dear Don Jr.

Dear Don Jr.,

Let me introduce myself to you, my name is Pat and I’ve been a teacher for almost 30 years. I couldn’t help but catch a little bit of your speech in El Paso where you referred to me and my colleagues as “losers.” ( I have to admit that I was inclined to be angry about your assessment of my profession, but as a teacher I recognized that your lack of understanding comes from ignorance (as it often does).

I am guessing that, much like our Secretary of Education, you have spent very little time in public schools. Not having spent much time in our schools I am guessing that you get most of your information about them from the news that you consume. Fortunately, there is a term for most of what I am guessing you read about public schools, the term is…it’s right on the tip of my tongue…what do they call it? Oh yes, it’s called “fake news.” You have surely bought into the narrative that teachers are busy promoting our own special interests at the expense of what is good for kids. You believe that teachers unions have made it impossible for teachers to be fired, so we have no incentive to work hard. The narratives that you have chosen to believe have led to teaching becoming America’s most embattled profession. Author Dana Goldstein says this, “Today the ineffective tenured teacher has emerged as a feared character, a vampire type who sucks tax dollars into her bloated pension and health care plans, without much regard for the children under her care…the media repeats, ad nauseam, anecdotes about the most despicable examples of this type of person. …As a result, the public has gotten the message that public school teaching-especially urban teaching-is a broadly failed profession.” That’s the narrative you’ve been sold. If only it were true.

The late great Richard DuFour called this “The Phony Crisis” in his book “In Praise of American Educators.” Mr. DuFour pointed out that in recent years graduation rates have exceeded 80% for the first time in history.   According to Education Week the improved rates of graduation for Latino and African-American students exceeded the national average. The College Board has found that students are scoring at all time highs on the College Board Advanced Placement (AP) exams. Educational scholar Diane Ravitch points out that “NAEP (The National Assessment of Educational Progress) data show beyond question that test scores in reading and math have improved for almost every group of students over the past two decades. …Students know more and can do more in these two basic skills subjects now than they could twenty or forty years ago.”

The narrative that you are selling is that teachers don’t care about their students, and yet teachers spend more than $1.6 billion (about $500 per teacher) out of their own pockets to provide students with classroom supplies (Lenbach-Reyhle, 2014, Shepard, 2014). Gallup polls continually find that parents are satisfied with their local schools. Data would also tell us that students recognize that teachers care about their well-being, treat them fairly, and offer extra help when needed (The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, 2013). There’s lots of data to suggest that public schools and teachers are doing incredible work.

But, in the end, those are a lot of statistics.   What I think you, your father, and Ms. DeVos are missing is what is happening day to day in our public schools. There aren’t teachers “indoctrinating” students with any nefarious political agendas.   Instead there are teachers lifting young people up every day in so many different ways.   I have the great privilege of being in a lot of school buildings as part of my job these days and I’ll tell you a little bit about a recent day I had. I started out visiting a middle school where kids were at Jazz Band rehearsal at 6:45 am on a cold morning to get ready for an upcoming performance. They were working hard at getting better at improvisational jazz, one of our country’s most important art forms.   I then sat in on a high school Language Arts class where the students were having collaborative conversations about how their unique backgrounds influenced their perception of a classic novel. That afternoon I observed a Kindergarten class using project-based learning to make water move across a sandy surface. My day ended in a high school business class where students were developing a marketing plan for a local professional sports team. I’m in a lot of classrooms these days and I have to say that I’m not hearing a lot of socialist rhetoric. I see teachers and students working together to learn.

Here’s the thing Junior, you seem concerned that the teaching force is a bunch of socialist “losers” who are busy indoctrinating the youth of America.   It isn’t true, but even if it was, where is the army of better-qualified people willing to do this work? If you, or others who want to trash America’s teachers, really wanted to be a part of the solution, you would bring on this invisible army of great teachers who would solve the phony crisis you have articulated.   But, let’s be honest, that isn’t happening.   Highly qualified, hard-working, very smart people are going to continue to open our classrooms to ALL kids.   We are going to drive our 2003 Windstar vans to work each day and do what’s best for kids. We will take a group of learners with increasingly unique needs and we will help them grow.   We will make mistakes, we will get frustrated at times, and we will persevere as we face larger class sizes and diminishing resources.   While you and Ms. DeVos are busy polishing the silver spoons you were born with, we’ll keep working. Just know that our days as your punching bags are over.   We’re going to change the world by changing the narrative you are selling one student at a time.


Patrick J. Kearney

To My Teacher Friends: You’re Worthy

An outstanding teacher friend of mine went to an educator’s conference not that long ago and the presenter said, “If you aren’t doing (insert educational practice being pitched), you are committing educational malpractice.” My friend was a little taken aback. He’s a great teacher and here was an “expert” telling him that he was doing harm to his students.

A while back I wrote an article entitled “There is no silver bullet for education reform.” (   It seemed to me then, and it seems to me now, that schools are always hoping to find “the thing” that is going to “fix” our system. I actually think this desire comes with good intentions.   Administrators, teachers, and even “school reformers” want “results.” Of course, there is often little agreement on what “results” we should be striving for. Nevertheless, schools are constantly implementing new strategies and initiatives in order to “fix” our schools. If only it were that easy. There truly isn’t a “magic bullet” that will solve every challenge or meet the diverse needs of every school or every learner.

Among the consequences of this search for the latest and greatest in educational strategies is that teachers are feeling beaten down. How would it feel to have someone tell you that you are committing “malpractice” in your field?   I think teachers feel that they are being told they aren’t good enough a lot these days. Whether it comes from well-intentioned school leaders with a new initiative or legislators saying that our schools aren’t doing their jobs, teachers are feeling a lot of stress these days.

Here’s what I think; teachers are incredible. In a world of rapidly changing challenges, continually diminishing resources, salaries that don’t keep up with other professions, and an understanding that our work is critical for the future of our students, teachers are doing amazing things.   I have the great privilege of having a job where I get to support and observe teachers in all types of settings. I was in a kindergarten room the other day where a group of students were working in small groups to solve a problem involving moving water with just a few tools.   It was awesome to watch these young children working collaboratively to come up with a solution.   It wasn’t a matter of chance that they knew how to work as a team; they had been taught how to work together by a master teacher. I was in a special education room recently when a student had an outburst of frustration while trying to complete a task. The teacher immediately took the students hand, calmed her down, and helped her to finish the task at hand. I was awed by kindness and patience of the teacher. I was in a high school band room the other day where the students were playing professional level band music at an incredible level.   They were making very complex musical decisions in real time with each other.

So, if you’re a teacher who is doing all they can to be better every day, if you’re a teacher who wants their students to be better every day, and if you’re a teacher who wants their school to be better every day, you’re good enough.   While it is important to stay on top of the latest school improvement initiatives and to read the latest and greatest articles about teaching, it is also important to be the judge of what is best for your classroom.   No one knows their own situation better than a teacher in their own classroom. Don’t be afraid to try something new and make a mistake every now and then. Know that there isn’t a strategy in the world that works in every situation or for every student.

January and February are tough months for teachers. The students show up with every possible illness, we arrive in the dark and leave in the dark many days, there isn’t a break in our near future, there are papers and tests to grade, and there are meetings, so many meetings.   Please know that you are good enough and most importantly your students need you.

From Helping Kids to Enabling Grifters

(This blog is dedicated to David Twombley who was always encouraged my writing)

Imagine going to work for the United States Department of Education.   I know a couple people who have worked there and a couple who still work there.   They went there with hopes of connecting students to resources that would help them grow.   They went there with the hopes of insuring that our most vulnerable students had access to the same quality of learning as our most affluent. Like almost all of us go into education, they got into it to make schools better.

In what is probably the least shocking news in recent memory, a study shows that morale at the U.S. Department of Education is down 12.4% ( over the last two years. Now, imagine going to work for the Department of Education after the President appoints a person who has never taught in a public school, who has never attended a public school, who has never sent her children to a public school, and who has made it her life’s mission to divert resources away from public schools to be your boss.   It doesn’t take much imagination to assume that working at the U.S. Department of Education has to be pretty miserable these days.

While working for a Billionaire who doesn’t know anything about public education has to be part of what makes jobs at the Department of Education depressing, it seems to me that the really horrible part has to be that the job has to be going from working to help students and teachers to actively enabling grifters (, taking away protections for our most vulnerable students (, and making colleges less safe (, . That’s the work of your Department of Education these days.

It should be shocking that Betsy DeVos devotes no notable time or energy from her bully pulpit to support public school students or teachers, and yet it really isn’t that shocking.   She sees her role as a protector of the privileged.   For those who went to work in the Department of Education to make schools better, going to work each day in service of wealthy grifters hoping to put some tax dollars in their own pockets has be demoralizing.

I promise that educators often don’t have a great deal of love for the Department of Education.   Our interactions with them are often in the form of red tape to be filled out or “report cards” of our schools based on narrow slices of standardized test results and other random statistics. And yet, I never doubted that they were trying to do something to make public schools better (even if I disagreed with how they were going about it).   It’s a whole new world now.   We have a Secretary of Education who is openly hostile to our public schools and who has shown no interest in looking out for the students who need public schools the most.

What Betsy DeVos is doing to Department of Education is shameful. Two years ago I begged Senator Chuck Grassley to vote no at her confirmation hearings (   At the time my biggest concern was her role in the failure of education policy in her home state of Michigan.   She was clearly unqualified for this job and she had used her considerable fortune to influence years of bad education policy. It turns out that she is much worse at this job than I had imagined. What has happened at the Department of Education for the last two years should be an embarrassment for Senator Grassley and the other 49 senators who voted to approve her nomination.

President Trump and the 50 senators who voted to confirm Ms. DeVos have done a disservice to taxpayers and most importantly to the students who trust the Department of Education to have their backs.   My heart goes out to the hard working men and women at the Department of Education who really want to have their backs, but are stuck working for someone who doesn’t.   Working in the field of education is a privilege and a pretty sacred trust. It is beyond sad that the person in Ms. Devos’s seat is abusing that privilege and trust day after day.

A Letter to Moderate/Independent Voters

Dear Moderate and Independent Voters,

Hi, I’m an Iowa teacher. My family moved to Iowa when I was four years old because of the state’s reputation as a leader in education. Education didn’t used to be a partisan issue in Iowa. Leaders from both parties did all they could to provide resources and support to Iowa’s public schools.   It can no longer be said that education is a non-partisan issue. I’m not sure why that is and it really doesn’t matter at this point.

I always considered myself a politically moderate guy, but I suppose that ship has also sailed. I would surely be labeled by most as the dreaded “L word”. My father was always proud to be identified as a liberal, so in his spirit I’ll admit to you that, while it may be out of fashion to admit it, I’m a big old liberal teddy bear.  It only seems fair to be honest with you.

For three years I have been writing about schools and politics and, if I were to be honest, I have probably been spitting into the wind. During the last three years the Iowa legislature has increased school funding at record-setting low levels (1% for FY 2019 after setting it at 1.1% in FY 2018). Iowa legislators also gutted Collective Bargaining in Iowa for public school teachers. That means that my colleagues and I can’t bargain for anything other than salary with our school boards.   Governor Ray instituted Collective Bargaining for Iowa’s workers in the mid-1970’s after years of study. Iowa’s Republican legislators took it away in the course of 48 hours at the statehouse.   In addition, it is becoming increasing clear that Iowa’s Republican lawmakers wish to divert more public dollars to private schools. Taxpayer contributions to private schools has grown 53% in the last ten years ( It is also clear to those who are paying attention that Iowa’s Republican leaders are ready to radically change Iowa’s public employee’s pension fund known as IPERS against our wishes.

So, I guess it’s safe to say that I am frustrated.   In no universe could you read the above data and conclude that Iowa’s Republican leaders are doing all they can for public schools. Yet their campaign ads say that they are pro-public education (except for the ads with scary music and fuzzy pictures of Democrats meant to scare you about these dangerous community leaders). Yeah, I’m frustrated because some of you must believe what these candidates are selling. I know that I’m not going to change the minds of hard-core Republican voters and I don’t need to convince my fellow wild-eyed liberal friends. So, I want to appeal to my moderate and independent friends.

In an era when transportation costs, insurance costs, and technology costs are rising so rapidly, how can 1% growth in our school’s budgets be enough? How can we devote more dollars to private schools when we are told that our state budget can’t stand more spending on our public schools? Why is it so important for Republican legislators to take away bargaining rights and mess with teacher pensions?

Teachers across the country are becoming increasingly frustrated. I encourage you to read about what teachers in states like Kentucky, West Virginia, and Oklahoma have had to do to be heard.   Iowa’s teachers don’t want to have storm our capitol or strike in order to be help our schools. We are hopeful that our neighbors will have our backs a little bit on November 6th.   When I watch Republican ads I am reminded of my grandmother who often said, “that dog won’t hunt.” I hope that dog doesn’t hunt this fall. The women and men who teach your sons and daughters are asking you a favor, please consider us and them when you go to the polls on November 6th.   Please?


Patrick Kearney

Iowa Teacher (29 years in the business)