Dear Republican Legislators,
I have to give you folks credit. You are incredibly disciplined. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that thousands of Iowans have connected with you to ask that you work towards a compromise on school spending with your Democratic colleagues. Yet, not a single Republican legislator will publicly stand up and suggest that maybe there is room for compromise. Not one. As a long time Democrat I have to say I’m impressed. There is no way you could get Democratic legislators to tow a line like this. You couldn’t find five Democrats to agree what shape the line should be. So, kudos to you Republican legislators for not even allowing us to have a real conversation about schools or school funding in Iowa. You have framed the conversation. Someone decided that the conversation should be about how little money there is to fund our schools. It was a smart play. You roll out your numbers that show that growth is slowing and that we just can’t afford further investment in our schools with one-time money. In all of your responses to the thousands of Iowans you tell them that there simply isn’t money to do more than a 1.25% increase in K-12 funding. It’s almost as if you have told your members that they can’t break ranks on this. You folks haven’t veered from that message even a little bit. My Democratic legislators started out asking for a 6% increase and then talked to a lot of people and the Democratically controlled Senate was able to pass a bill with a 4% increase. The Democrats then thought it would be prudent to move to 2.6% in order to reach a reasonable compromise. We Democrats just aren’t as disciplined as you folks are. Democrats should have held at 6% and just played a game of chicken with Republicans rather than actually try to have a dialogue. We would be in the same place wouldn’t we? Nowhere.
Here is the thing that you aren’t telling your constituents though; the reason there isn’t any money is because you want it that way. You have given away public money in the form of grants and tax credits to business and industry. 80% of expected revenue growth for 2016 has already been given away to finance a commercial property-tax rollback. So, there will be less money next year. You have framed the question really well, because many people simply believe that there isn’t any money. What they are starting to figure out is that you have given the money that we used to spend on schools and chosen to give it owners of commercial property. Interestingly we don’t have to look very far to see how this is going to go. Governor Brownback of Kansas said in 2012 that, “We’ll have a real live experiment” in Republican tax policy in his state. Are you, as Republican legislators, eager to have Iowans read about what is happening in Kansas? In case any of you have missed it, here is what the Boston Globe is saying about the “real live experiment” going on in Kansas.
You like to answer every question about school funding with the same answer, “there isn’t enough money.” It’s not a good enough answer any more. Iowans are going ask some more questions of you. How is your plan for tax credits and grants to business and industry, which are causing state funds to dry up, better than the Kansas plan? Is there any way that we don’t end up in the same situation that Kansas is in? Do you have any other motives that are driving your plan to force austerity onto Iowa schools? In back rooms at the Capitol do you discuss a desire to break up teacher unions, do you discuss charter schools, and do you discuss more privatization of education? Why not have those conversation in public? They are worthy conversations. Here is what I think, and it’s just my opinion; I don’t think you want to have THOSE conversations. You want to convince Iowans that there just isn’t any money. You want Iowans to believe that, gosh darn it, if we only had more money we would help those poor schools, but it just isn’t there. You’ve done it pretty well to be honest, but Iowans are catching on. The truth is that you will probably be successful in underfunding Iowa schools this year and very likely next year. Congratulations? I mean, it’s what you wanted right? You reduced funds available to schools in a way that is going to make it harder to maintain programs that our communities tell us they want in their schools available to Iowa’s young people. Hundreds of pink slips are already in the hands of Iowa teachers, so again congratulations? Music and art programs across the state will take a hit, so well done? Iowa deserves a real conversation. It should include a hard look at what is happening in Kansas. It should also include a discussion about whether Iowa would really be better if schools were in the hands of wealthy charter school operators rather than career educators who have dedicated their lives to public education. I know you folks like to look to Wisconsin for innovation, so let’s have a conversation with our friends in Wisconsin about how charter schools and privatization of schools is going there.
We really do need to have these conversations. At the moment you are “winning” the conversation about money that you have diverted away from schools (and other things like clean water, etc.). I have been told by people that I respect that there is no chance that Iowa’s schools get more than 1.25% this year. So, again, congratulations? I would recommend to my Democratic legislators to take it at this point rather than waste any more time “negotiating” with all of you. It is time to move on. Schools will struggle to make ends meet, teachers will be fired, programs will close down. You haven’t listened to school boards, school administrators, teachers, or students. I understand now. You were never interested in a conversation about what schools need. I am a lifelong learner, so I have observed you carefully over the last three months or so. You framed the question this time and wouldn’t be diverted from the narrative that we just don’t have the money. Well, I’ve learned. I am going to make sure that someone else gets to frame the conversation moving forward. The question is going to be “What is best for the kids of Iowa.”
That’s the question my friends. It’s a great question, because if you believe it is charter schools or more privatization of schools you get to say that. If you believe that it is good for the kids of Iowa to have more and more funds that were once used to provide programs and teachers for their schools going to tax breaks for big business and industry you get to say that. Little old me, Patrick Kearney, just a teacher from a suburban Iowa school is telling you that I’m going to reframe the question from here on out and I’m guessing there are others that will join me. “What is best for the kids of Iowa?” Take some time before you answer my Republican lawmaker friends, because it can’t be answered the way you have tried to answer it this spring. Your constituents aren’t going to let you do it. I am a proud product of Iowa schools and I have learned something in the last few months, so I am going to apply what I learned. Just to make it interesting I will donate $500 to the campaign of the first Republican legislator who hops on this blog and provides a nuanced and honest answer to the question, “What is best for the kids of Iowa?” I’m totally serious. The answer must include an answer to the question, “Do you support charter schools?”, an answer to the question, “Is Iowa paying teachers enough to fill our classrooms with the best and brightest?”, and an answer to the question, “Are you in favor of breaking up teacher unions in Iowa?” (Added question as of 4/27/15): “Do you believe it is more important to provide corporate tax breaks then to improve education funding?” (One more as well): “If Iowa Schools have an excess of dollars, what needs to be cut?” I think all of those questions are important to an honest conversation about education in Iowa. Any takers?
Sincerely, Patrick J. Kearney
*I want to be sure and give credit to Richard Doak (former editor of the Des Moines Register opinion pages) for some of the key points in this letter. His opinion piece below is a masterpiece. http://www.desmoinesregister.com/story/opinion/columnists/iowa-view/2015/04/19/state-spending-inequity-insidious-shift-priorities/25987401/