State budgets are complex. I have spent a fair amount of time in recent months trying to study what I can about Iowa’s budget. I have learned something; state budgets are complex. The good news is that there are resources available to dig through it and learn some things. A quick google search of the terms “terry branstad world class education” turns up 5,490 hits. He likes to talk about “world-class” schools in Iowa. He has even fancied himself the “education governor.” Let’s just take a look at how we got to the place where the Governor vetoed $56 million dollars in educational spending yesterday (July 2, 2015).
We have to go back to 2013 to understand some of why we are where we are at today. Republican legislators liked to talk this legislative session about the “apple” that is the state budget. They like to tell us that education “gets the first bite of the apple,” and they seem a little cranky about it. Those interested in public education would be happy to get the first bite of a healthy sized “apple,” but that’s not what we get. In 2013 Republican legislators passed a $278 million tax cut for commercial property taxes. The “apple” suddenly got $278 million dollars smaller so that we could cut property taxes for businesses. It is estimated that 11% of that tax cut may end up in the pockets of individual Iowans. When Republican legislators tell us that “we can’t spend more than we have,” it is important to note that in 2013 they chose to reduce the amount of money available. So, even as the state’s revenues increase at a rate around 5% per year over the last two years very little of that 5% is available to allow support for schools, mental health facilities, clean water, etc. to keep up.
During the 2014-2015 legislative session Iowa’s legislators approved the Iowa Teacher Leadership and Compensation program. By way of full disclosure, I support this initiative and served as a Lead Teacher during the 2014-2015 school year. During the 2015-2016 school year I will serve full-time as the facilitator for the TLC grant in the Johnston Schools. It is a good program. It brings teachers together to impact student achievement through implementing best practice teaching strategies with fidelity across the state of Iowa. Here is the thing though, the Governor’s own task force, who he charged to be stewards of this ground-breaking legislation, have told him clearly that the money needed to operate the TLC program should not come at the expense of Supplemental State Aid (SSA). In their own words, “The Teacher Leadership funding…should not detract from the resources provided to schools to meet the basic services to our students.” Further your own Task Force said, “We would be remiss in our responsibilities if we did not call upon you to provide full support for basic funding through Supplemental State Aid.” Instead, the Governor and Republican legislators rolled TLC money into the SSA, meaning that schools got less money for basic student services.
On January 13, 2015 the Governor gave his Condition of the State address. In that address the Governor touted the teacher leadership program and advocated for his bullying bill. The budget that came along with that address called for a 1.25% increase in SSA. I won’t spend much time on the failed bullying bill other than to say that, while Republican legislators are quick to blame the “teacher union” lobby for greedily asking for salaries that keep up with inflation, the Governor’s office hasn’t attacked the lobbies who fought against the bullying bill. I encourage interested citizens to ask why the governor’s bullying bill died in the legislature. So, by law, the state legislature has 30 days to act on the budget that the Governor presents to them. Legislative Democrats proposed a 6% increase to SSA, which they quickly reduced to 4% after looking at budget realities. It is important to point out that Iowa has a $700 million budget surplus set aside for “rainy days,” and that Iowa’s revenues continue to grow at around 5%. It is also notable that the Governor asked for a 9% increase to his own budget. Eventually legislative Democrats reduced their proposal to an increase in SSA of 2.625%. Republican legislators, who hadn’t compromised an inch, accused Democrats of using “used car salesman” tactics to negotiate. They really did that. 113 days later than law required, legislators passed a bill that increased SSA 1.25% (with TLC included in that amount). In addition they voted to provide schools with $56 million dollars in one time money to purchase books, instruments, art supplies, technology, and other resources to try to keep up with inflation. Where was the Governor between January 13th through June 2nd? During that time every school district in Iowa weighed in with the opinion that 1.25% for SSA was inadequate to maintain current programming in Iowa’s schools. In addition the Governor took his only real action that impacted Iowa’s schools by listening to the State Fair Board and the tourism lobby and insisted that schools not be able to select their own start dates.
That bill sat on the Governor’s desk for 27 days. He chose late in the afternoon of July 2nd to veto the $56 million dollars in one time money that legislators negotiated. He chose to announce the veto at the last possible moment prior to a three day holiday weekend. He made this political calculation in attempt to do “damage control.” It was his hope that Iowans would not be paying attention to legislation at the start of a holiday weekend. It was a calculated political decision that came 140 days after the law requires the state to set funding for schools. It came a full day after school’s had to begin their fiscal year. How were/are schools supposed to operate under these types of conditions?
What are the ramifications of the politicization of education in Iowa this year? I can list a few.
1) The percent of funding for school districts coming from the State General Fund appropriations has decreased from 45.7% in FY11 to 40.9% in FY16.
2) School districts across Iowa had to certify budgets in April and had no idea at what level they would be funded. Approximately 1000 teaching positions have been lost due to the inadequate state budget and the delay in getting the budget signed into law.
3) Democratic legislators got bamboozled. They were duped by the Governor and Republican legislators. Republican legislators talked about their precious “apple” and how lucky we were to get any of it (especially that all important first bite). In a divided legislature Republicans didn’t move an inch from the 1.25% increase to SSA. Thousands of Iowans pleaded with them to compromise. 113 days into violating the law they passed SSA with a 1.25% increase and offered schools $56 in one time money (that the state has available). But, wait, after months of negotiating, the absent Governor steps in minutes before a 3 day holiday weekend begins and vetoes the one time money. Why would a Democratic legislator possibly work with this Governor ever again? If he wanted to play a role in school funding legislation he should have had his mustache up on Capitol Hill and acted like a leader.
4) Iowans are angry. Our legislators are failing us. Most importantly they are failing our young people. By failing to reasonably negotiate over school funding our legislators have failed us. For better or worse we have a Democratically controlled Senate and a Republican controlled House. It is their responsibility to lead together. Iowans won’t forget.
5) Iowans are done hearing about from Governor Branstad about how he is the “education” Governor (I swear I have never heard anyone outside of his office refer to him that way). It’s just not accurate Mr. Governor. The Governor proposed to help prevent bullying in Iowa Schools, but he couldn’t get his own party to side with him. He talks about STEM education and yet he provides no resources to implement more STEM programs across the state. He talks and and he talks and he talks. He does nothing. His sole educational initiative this year was to deny school districts the ability to set their own starting dates. Why? Because business and tourism interests told him to. That’s our “education” Governor.
So, now what? I still hope that the Governor will engage intelligent people in a dialogue about Iowa’s schools. It is my suspicion that the Governor wants to crush teacher’s unions. It is my suspicion that the Governor wants more school privatization and more charter schools. Well, I’m not sure I suppose that the Governor wants these things as much as the Governor’s wealthy donors want these things, but that probably doesn’t matter. What matters is that we all lay our agendas out on the table and have a conversation. It isn’t bad to want charter schools, it just hasn’t proven to be effective. I do think it is bad to want to crush teacher’s unions, but it’s a viewpoint that needs to be exposed if i exists among our legislators. Say it. My agenda is pretty simple. Schools can get better. It will take study, conversations, and yes resources. Simply starving our public schools won’t make our schools better. I want schools to engage in innovative practices that change what it means to be a learner in Iowa. The boxes that kidst fill in on standardized tests don’t tell us very much. A high school diploma shouldn’t mean the same thing now that it mean in 1986 (when I graduated). A high school diploma should be a demonstration that young people are creative problem-solvers. These are the things that teaches talk about every day. Our schools can get better, but they won’t get better in a state where legislators don’t follow the law on school funding. Our schools won’t get better in a state where our Governor, instead of engaging in a dialogue about what learning could look like in Iowa, cowardly vetoes school spending when he thinks no one will be watching.
Iowans are watching. We are watching carefully. We want to talk about more than just education spending. We actually want to talk about education. After we have that conversation (where everyone is honest about their agendas) we can then talk about what it will cost. It won’t be free. But, it is a conversation that we need to have. I said yesterday that this veto and the way he did it will be his legacy. I believe that. What else do you remember about Governor’s Branstad’s term? Not much. He has an opportunity to change that legacy. If he were to start a great honest conversation about what it would would make Iowa’s schools great he could create a legacy that he could be proud of. That conversation has to happen with or without him, but at some point Iowa’s legislators have to actually walk the walk instead of just talking about apples.