The Room Where it Happens

This summer my family and I had the opportunity to see the musical Hamilton on Broadway.  My son had chosen New York as the destination for a trip to celebrate his high school graduation and we got the tickets just when Hamilton was starting it’s Broadway run.  We had no idea that the tickets we purchased would be selling for thousands of dollars by the time our show date arrived (we saw one of the three final performances of the original cast).

While the show is obviously about the life of Alexander Hamilton, as I read up on the show I became more intrigued in Aaron Burr.  My father had given me the historical novel Aaron Burr, written by Gore Vidal.  I didn’t remember much from it other than Aaron Burr shot Alexander Hamilton.  The musical Hamilton is told largely from the vantage point of Mr. Burr.  The defining moment for Burr’s character in the show (short of killing the main character) is when he sings that what he really longs for is to be In the Room Where it Happens.  Burr is frustrated that Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison are plotting to move the capitol to Washington D.C. (among other things) and he’s not in the room.  This affront is what drives the rest of Burr’s motives for the rest of the show.

Whatever you think of Burr’s actions, I don’t have any problem with Burr wanting to be in that room.  Burr was a smart, passionate, and dedicated man.  He wanted to change the world and that was only going to happen if he was where the decisions were being made.  Over the last couple of years I have done my best to observe Iowa’s legislators as they set the course for our state’s future.  My observation is that many of them try to avoid being in the room where the real work is happening.  Even as many of them are running for re-election this fall they seem to be avoiding talking about what happens in those rooms.  It seems to me that our Governor is rarely in the room when the real action is occurring.

It is my hope that when Iowans go to the polls in November they elect legislators who want to be in the room.  The deals that lead to education funding that doesn’t keep up with the rate of inflation are happening with too few people at the table.  Our Republican legislators want us to move towards privatizing schools but they won’t say it in public. Their tactic is to have a few people in back rooms continue to push schools into austerity while businesses receive hefty tax cuts.

While I’m not advocating for legislators that are looking to duel it out, I am looking for legislators who are transparent and eager to get in that room.  We should demand that our schools get a chance to take their best shot at supporting kids; they deserve it.

A Lot of People Are Saying

A lot of people are saying that Iowa’s governor and legislature have done a poor job of supporting Iowa’s public schools in recent years.  These are some of the best people.  You hear them right?  These people are saying that Iowa’s legislators have continued to give big businesses tax breaks that have caused a stagnation in revenue growth.  Some people with really good brains, I mean these are some smart folks, say that if Iowa were to reduce the amount of business tax credits just slightly, that there would be adequate resources available to adequately fund schools and other public priorities.

There are people who say our governor and his friends in the legislature have consistently been in violation of Iowa law by not approving school budgets in a timely fashion as they are required to do.  There are also people who say that this education funding thing is rigged.  I mean, really, people say it is rigged.  It is rigged because many legislator’s true agenda is to promote the privatization of our schools (creating profit for their wealthy donors).  You hear people say it all the time.  You hear some really quality people say that some of our legislators don’t respect public school teachers.  Could our legislators be rigging the system to deny our public schools adequate funding?  I mean, I don’t know, but it’s something I hear people saying.

You know what else?  Our fancy elite governor and his legislator pals don’t want you to look at how these types of policies have played out in other states.  People in Kansas and Louisiana are saying that their high-brow legislators have already enacted policies that cut taxes for businesses and made massive cuts to public education.  Some of the best people in Kansas say that it has been a disaster.  The real patriots of Kansas just ousted 11 conservative legislators during their primaries who were at the heart of the disastrous policies that have left Kansas in a fiscal and public education crisis.  A lot of people in Kansas are saying that it is crazy that Iowa’s governor and legislators are continuing down that same path.

This election is about making Iowa great.  The governor isn’t up for election so maybe there isn’t anything we can do, although those Education People, maybe there is, I don’t know.  I mean, maybe those Education People will get out and demand that our state rise up to support public education.  Maybe those Education People will refuse to believe that it is more important that our state continue to cut taxes for our largest businesses while claiming there isn’t enough revenue for school funding to keep up with inflation.

I hear from lots of people who want change.  I hear from people from all over the state who tell me that they want our legislators to support public education.  If the Education People don’t win all over Iowa, maybe the system is just rigged?  I mean, public education can only lose if the election is rigged right?  That’s what a lot of people are saying.

Well, let’s be honest, the election won’t be rigged.  We have real choices to make.  We only have to look to Kansas to see an electorate that has had enough with the failed policies of “trickle down” economics.  November presents us with an opportunity to hold Iowa’s legislators accountable for their actions.  What we do with our resources speaks to our priorities.  The current legislative majority in the Iowa House’s priority has been to cut taxes for big business at the expense of water quality, mental health, and Iowa’s schools.  A lot of people say it’s time for a change.

What’s Your Issue? (Mine Isn’t Hard to Guess)

I’m a political junkie.  I have vivid memories of my father taking me to the 1984 Iowa caucuses.  I wasn’t yet old enough to vote, but I was so excited to be in a room where people were passionately advocating for what they believed in.  My dad stood up for Walter Mondale, but as I listened to the debate that night I went and stood with the George McGovern camp.  Thus began my track record of supporting candidates who didn’t exactly take the country by storm.

 

While my track record of picking winning candidates is suspect, my belief in the importance of advocating for what I believe in hasn’t wavered.  The magic of those 1984 caucuses to me wasn’t so much that people stood up for their candidate, but that they stood up and advocated for their issues.  It won’t be surprise to anyone that my issue is public education.  Sadly, it is an issue that gets almost no attention.

I attended a presentation today by education guru Rick DuFour where he suggested that current “education reform” could be characterized by the following initiatives:

  • Provide vouchers and charter schools
  • Punish “failing” schools
  • Make it easier to fire educators
  • Make it easier to bring non-educators into schools
  • Close “low performing” schools
  • Provide “merit pay” for a few educators based on standardized test scores

Marc Tucker, in his book Standing on the Shoulders of Giants says, “We can find no evidence that any country that leads the world in educational performance has gotten there by implementing any of the major agenda items that dominate education reform in the United States.”  Our legislators are failing us as they seek to “reform” public schools.  They continue to try to convince us that schools and teachers will be motivated by fear, although there is no evidence to suggest that strategy has ever been successful.

As I advocate for public education I want the candidates to speak to my issue.  I want them to go on record about their opinions on charter schools, vouchers, how they will support public schools, and how they will provide the resources necessary to offer students the support and programs that our communities tell us they expect.  If their answer is that diverting money from public schools to charter schools is the answer, I will oppose them.  If their answer is that it should be easier to fire educators, I will oppose them.  If their answer is that we should punish schools who are contending with immense challenges, I will oppose them.

I will also oppose candidates who simply do nothing.  When you google the state representative for my school district the first hit of any policy substance is his support of a bill that would allow children of any age to fire weapons.  This is where he has chosen to exert his energy as a legislator.  It is almost impossible to find him on the record with any talk public education.  His time in the legislature is notable only that his party has failed to follow Iowa law in providing timely funding for public education and the notably small increases in school funding when they do finally pass a budget.  Our legislators cannot be allowed to be mute on the issue of public education.

We can’t accept the answer that Iowa lacks the resources to adequately fund our schools. The Iowa Economic Development Authority suggests that Iowa has one of the lowest “costs of doing business” in the country (http://www.iowaeconomicdevelopment.com/WhyIowa), yet our legislators continue to tell us that there aren’t the resources to adequately fund our schools.   Right or wrong, our state budget reflects our values.  In recent years Iowa’s budgets would suggest that we value tax cuts for big businesses at the expense of funding education.  Wouldn’t it be great if there was evidence of this plan being effective?  Oh wait, there is evidence.  Iowa only has to look to Kansas to see the implications of our current path (http://www.nytimes.com/2016/06/01/us/kansas-parents-worry-schools-are-slipping-amid-budget-battles.html).  Why would we possibly follow their example?

It is June.  November seems a long ways away, but it isn’t too early to stand up and be heard.  Don’t let a candidate in your district, state, or country not speak to your issue.  I am going to politely demand that my candidates speak about education.  In the presentation by Mr. DuFour that I mentioned earlier he stated that public schools must improve because “the consequences of failing in school have never been more dire.”  We have to do right by kids.  The election of 2016 is actually about the world that my 17 year old son will inherit.  The people who passionately advocated for their issues in 1984 would surely want me to passionately advocate for my issues today.

 

Shared Leadership

Schools in Iowa (and around the country) are facing challenges.  That’s not new news to anyone who reads this blog.  Legislators see education issues as a chance to play politics.  The Governor and the Iowa House majority see public education as something that needs to be tamed.  They see public schools as bloated and teachers as greedy and uninterested in student achievement.  In order to demonstrate their control over public schools they withhold funding decisions until the last possible moment (in violation of Iowa law), they increase unfunded mandates (more expensive testing, retention etc.), and they do it all with little or no public debate or dialogue.  As I said, we face challenges.

In the midst of these challenges we have also been given an opportunity.  The single educational initiative that has come out of the Branstad administration is the Teacher Leadership and Compensation program (TLC).  The program was always meant to supplement instruction and not supplant funding, but the funding of this program by year two had clearly supplanted some general school funding.  Many Iowans have spent two pretty active years fighting the Governor and House majority on school funding issues and, quite frankly, have lost.  As I said, we face challenges, yet we have an opportunity.

At the heart of the TLC program is the belief that by providing teachers with an opportunity to grow, refine, and share their expertise with peers that student learning will increase.  Maybe most importantly an effective TLC program will provide an opportunity for more teachers to be at the decision making table when important instructional and systemic decisions are being made.  During my 25 year career in education it would be impossible to count the number of times that I said, “If only I was in the room when that decision was being made…”.  Like most organizations, schools have traditional been run from the top down.  Decisions were made at the top and those of us at the bottom implemented what we were told.

While it is shameful that legislatively the TLC grants have supplanted other funds that are sorely needed in our schools, it is our current reality that the grant funds must go towards supporting teachers taking on leadership roles in their districts.  We must see this as an opportunity.   It is an opportunity to walk the walk.  I am a teacher who has always said that the only people who know more about schools than teachers are the students.  It is important for teachers to find ways to influence the important decisions that are being made in our schools.   Yet, teachers are not able to make these decisions on their own.  In order to be most effective, I believe that schools must move to a model of shared leadership.  School administrators and teacher leaders must begin to operate in an organizational model that engages in conversations about current reality, looks at data to determine strengths and weaknesses, and create and implement action plans that respond to that data.  It seems pretty simple, and yet it is challenging work.

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I have the privilege of working on an eight person team that includes four administrators and four teachers.  We have great respect for each other, we share a passion for learning, and we laugh together a lot.  It is a great team, and yet we often find ourselves challenged by the evolving nature of school leadership.  Even when we agree on a course of action there it is often difficult to clarify who initiates the actual action.  When we disagree it is sometimes difficult to determine how to come to consensus and how we ultimate arrive at a decision.  We have made it work pretty well, but if a group such as ours struggles with sharing leadership, I am certain that it is much harder in situations where there isn’t near as much trust or rapport.  Dr. Bill Donahue says that “Real shared leadership will begin to take hold when there is a commitment to becoming a true community of leaders with mutual accountability, vision, goals, trust, blame, and rewards.”  Most schools aren’t there yet.  Sometimes shared leadership looks like this:

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I have a lot of colleagues who are dubious about what the TLC grant looks like in their schools and districts.  I understand that.  Some good teachers are moving out of classrooms to help support their peers in new ways.  I look at it from the lens of my previous role as a high school band director.  I would do my best to help my students play their best.  I used all of the tools in my toolkit to prepare them for success.  When I thought they were doing really well I then brought in someone smarter than me to rehearse them.  Brilliant teachers such as Bob Meunier, Steve Shanley, Bob Washut, and Paul Brizzi, among others, would come in and uncover all sorts of things that the band needed in order to improve.  Allowing those people into my classroom to support the learning of me and my students was invaluable.  We can all benefit by some coaching from master teachers.

Is a teacher leadership program a “silver bullet” that will solve all of our education challenges?  Of course not.  Do I believe that schools are better when teachers have an active role in making decisions that directly impact student learning?  I absolutely do.  We are going to have to prove that there is a measurable impact on student learning and well-being based on sharing leadership in our schools. That will take some time.  It will take a willingness to be vulnerable to make mistakes.  It will take some risk-taking.  It will also be important that teacher leadership doesn’t just become another layer in the bureaucracy that education often is.  We must also make sure that ALL teachers feel empowered to lead.  Formalized teacher leadership won’t work if it comes off as “us” vs. “them” no matter who us and them is.

If we believe that schools are better when educators are making important decisions, then we owe it to ourselves to do the work of teacher leadership right.

For My Dad

Today would have been my Dad’s 79th birthday.  He grew up as a poor kid from Elm Creek, Nebraska and became a very successful banker.  He never went to college (something he was unnecessarily embarrassed about) yet at one time he ran 21 banks throughout the Midwest.  He was married to the same woman for 45 years. He served for 16 years on the Kearney, Nebraska City Council.  He passed away a year and a half ago and one of the things I miss most was talking about politics with him.  He was a guy who didn’t have much a filter and in his honor this blog will be filter free.  It is worth noting that he was OK if people disagreed with him; he was always willing to debate and respected those who didn’t agree with him.

I am certain he would have been fascinated by the politics of 2016.  The fact that the biggest national political issue today is about bathrooms would amuse him.  Very little made him grumpier than politicians who wasted time on issues that aren’t really issues.  In a time when there are real issues such as hunger, homelessness, education, terrorism, and worsening income inequality, he would be appalled at all of the energy and rhetoric being poured into conversations about who uses what bathroom.  It would occur to him that he took leaks in public restrooms unharmed for 77 years.  He would note that if someone does something bad in a restroom they should be punished.  Done; now talk about something important.  He would be appalled that an Iowa Senator is holding a Supreme Court nomination hostage for purely partisan political reasons.  He was appalled that Iowa’s Governor and Republican legislators are shifting resources away from education in order to line the pockets of big businesses.  He would want to know if my quality of life had changed significantly because my legislators are cutting taxes in Iowa.  I don’t know about many of my middle class friends, but my taxes are pretty much the same as they have been for quite a while.  Someone is getting tax cuts in Iowa, but it doesn’t feel like it is me.  What my Dad would recognize is that schools are getting hosed.  Our Governor and Republican legislators would try to paint it some other way, but they are hosing public education; and they are doing it with almost no public debate.

I became politically active because of my Dad.  He used to host fundraisers in our home.  He was invited to attend the State of the Union on two different occasions.  He was passionate about politics.  He was also a man of some wealth who knew that the role of government was to expend it’s resources and energy into making the playing field as fair as possible.  How is the playing field made more fair?  Educate our kids.  Provide a reasonable safety net for those who are struggling.  Get out of the way of small businesses.  Most importantly, listen to the people who you represent.  Don’t simply serve as puppets of those who already have the most.

If our leaders aren’t listening to us then we have to take matters into our own hands in November.  I promise you that politicians are doing things today that they hope we will forget in November.  We can’t forget.  They have to answer our questions.  I don’t know what your issue is, but my issue is education.  There are legislators right here in my neck of the woods who haven’t said a peep in the last two years publicly about this issue, but they aren’t going to be afforded the luxury for long.  If you’ve got an issue, be sure your candidates answer.

I would give anything to hear my father mock those who want to talk about bathrooms today.  Instead, I am going to spend some time reading about real issues.  I am going to study about why Iowa can’t support education at the rate of inflation.  I am going to read about the policy failures in Kansas and Louisiana so that I can ask my legislators what they can learn from those train wrecks.  I am also going to read a little bit more about some of my Dad’s heroes.  He loved George McGovern, Jimmy Carter, Tip O’Neill, and Robert Kennedy.  People who believed that government was a force for good.  I miss talking to him, but I do think I learned a little something from him.

 

It’s All About November

It is March 18th and Iowa legislators haven’t set K-12 school funding for next year, in violation of their own law.  Funding should have been set over a year ago for the 2016-2017 school year.  School districts are being forced to set budgets without knowing whether they will receive any increases in funding from the legislature.  School districts are setting budgets that increase class sizes, cut teachers, and cut programs.

During election years and before legislative sessions begin, our legislators talk about how education should be our state’s highest priority.  Then, once the legislative session begins, they stop talking about it. Democrats and Republicans set their numbers and then it becomes a game of chicken, with Iowa’s young people caught squarely in the middle.  The decisions about education funding seem to happen in rooms very deep within the Capitol building.  I follow the Iowa legislature pretty carefully, and while I find lots of references to medicaid and allowing children to shoot guns, I find very little about what is actually happening in regards to education funding.  Is it possible that the reason for this is that lobbyists for healthcare and guns are pushing those conversations into the spotlight?

Why is it that the Iowa House representative for my school district is willing to be quoted about arming children, but it is impossible to find him staking out a position on school funding?  Like many of his Republican counterparts, he simply waits to be told what low number will be set in that back room of the capitol late in the session and then votes the party line.

The Iowa Revenue Estimating Conference this week advised legislators that revenues would increase by 4.4% for Fiscal Year 2017 (http://www.thegazette.com/subject/news/government/revenue-update-sets-stage-for-budget-deal-201603160).  How can a legislator say that education is a priority in our state when they aren’t willing to support Iowa schools at half the rate that revenues are growing?  Even with massive corporate tax breaks Iowa’s economy is growing, yet we spend $1000 less per pupil in our schools than the national average?  The only reasonable answer is that our Republican legislators want to set up public schools to fail so that, much like how they want to privatize Medicaid in order for the health care industry to increase profits, they can privatize education.  Is there another explanation?  Have Republicans explained how public schools get better with larger class sizes, fewer teachers, or fewer programs?  Of course not.

Here is the thing though; they are who we think they are.  They care about guns for children.  They care about legalized sports gambling.  They care about privatizing Medicaid.  They care about tax cuts for big business.  Folks, that’s on us.  We elected them.  So, it’s all about November.  Somewhere in some back room of the Capitol a small group of legislators are figuring out what number, less than a 3% increase, that they can get away with for school funding.  That’s just the way it is.  What we must do is hold those legislators who are sitting silently and allowing this to happen accountable in November.  If we re-elect a legislator who won’t speak out in favor of adequately funding our schools in favor of speaking out on guns, that’s on us.  Legislators count on the fact that voters have short memories.  History suggests they are right.  We have to prove them wrong.

Dear Governor Branstad

Dear Governor Branstad,

In your Condition of the State address you said that your budget proposal (an increase of 2.45% in Supplemental State Aid for pK-12 schools) would provide the stability, predictability and funding that schools need and deserve.  Whether or not a 2.45% increase would provide the funding our schools need to meet increasing expectations is debatable, but what is not debatable is that you and our legislators have not done anything to make school funding stable or predictable.  It should be an embarrassment to you that the legislature continues to be in violation of Iowa Code by not setting school funding more than a year in advance.  Because of your lack of leadership on this issue, schools are announcing significant budget cuts throughout the state.

Just this week, several state Chamber of Commerce leaders asked you and legislators to do your jobs and get school funding taken care of (http://www.desmoinesregister.com/story/opinion/columnists/iowa-view/2016/03/01/chamber-leaders-boost-aid-schools-least-3/81179218/).  They also recommended that School Supplemental State Aid be increased by at least 3%.  They recognize that in order for Iowa’s schools to be competitive Iowa must invest in manageable class sizes, quality learning environments, and curriculum that is aligned with Iowa’s workforce needs.

Many times we wish we could see the implications of our decisions before we make them.  As you and Republican legislators continue to slash corporate taxes, which leads to forcing austerity on Iowa’s schools, wouldn’t it be great to be able to see into the future and determine how these cuts will impact our state.  The good news is that we can see the implications that massive tax cuts and spending cuts have on a state.  Have you seen what is happening in Kansas (http://highschool.latimes.com/orange-county-school-of-the-arts/the-kansas-education-crisis/)?  To follow in their path seems ludicrous.

Mr. Governor, while I recognize that with an approval rating of 38% (http://www.publicpolicypolling.com/main/terry-branstad/) your influence may be limited, it is time for you to lead.  You need to demand that Iowa’s legislators act on school funding.  While your July 2 veto of school funding last year surely makes your influence tenuous, it is your responsibility to do right by Iowa’s young people.

2016 is an election year.  If I were a Republican legislator I would be worried.  I would be worried that the 2016 election will be a referendum on school funding.  If I were a Republican governor in Iowa, I would be worried that the Iowa House will no longer have a Republican majority in 2017 because of this issue.  Voters in Iowa are paying attention to our legislators unwillingness to act.  Simply holding a party line isn’t going to serve legislators well when they face voters in November.

Schools need know their budget situation as soon as possible.  You can choose to lead or you can choose to be a bystander.  Do the right thing because it’s the right thing, do the right thing for political reasons, or do something else, but do SOMETHING.   Iowa’s students deserve better than you and Iowa’s legislators have given them in recent years.

Sincerely,

Patrick J. Kearney