What Do Schools Really Want?

Readers of this blog know that the Governor vetoed $56 million in school spending this week.  In a previous blog I laid out some of the timeline and story that led to the veto.  First of all, let me be clear that I find the veto sad. It is also interesting that the Republican Speaker of the Iowa House of Representatives has said that the Governor was lying when he said that legislators knew he would veto the school spending bill.

Iowa Republicans Dispute Governor’s School Spending Veto

Here we are.  The school district I work for will get $738,000 less for the 2015-2016 school year because of the Governor’s veto.  My district is in the midst of a plan to put more technology in the hands of our students at all levels.  We are working to improve access to STEM education and we are a district with a proud tradition in the arts, athletics, academic clubs, and much more.  Our district would not have spent that $738,000 on magic beans or Cadillacs for our most senior staff members.  Not that I would have been in charge, but I imagine that $738,000 would have bought some books, a lot of technology, and maybe some new equipment for the large percentage of our student population that participate in extra curricular activities and extended learning opportunities.  Those would all be great uses of one-time money.  If asked, I believe our students would tell the Governor that they wouldn’t mind getting new books or some updated technology with the money that the legislature voted in favor of after months of debate and compromise.  But, it wasn’t to be.

Over the course of the last few months I have been proud that this blog has started some conversations.  Not all of them rise to the level of the Lincoln/Douglas debates, but there has been some dialogue.  I am happiest when young teachers tell me that they appreciate my advocacy.  That is at the heart of what I want to do; I want to be an advocate for teachers and for public education, which really means I want to be an advocate for students.  Young teachers need to know that it is OK to advocate for what we do and what we believe is right.  I have also encountered critics of my writing.  One critic suggested that by offering to donate money to candidate who would answer some questions about their unwillingness to compromise (which no one took me up on) that I was a “felon.”  He sent that note to my district administrators.  Other Republican legislators have accused me of having my facts wrong, although none have pointed to any inaccurate statements.  Mostly though people who disagree with my point of view ask one question, “If a 1.25% increase isn’t enough for our schools, how much is enough?”  That is actually a pretty good question.  Unfortunately, I don’t think I have a very good answer to it.

The answer that no one will like is that in order to meet the wishes of our communities, in order to meet state and federal mandates, in order to offer differentiated learning to every student who walks through our doors, and in order to attract the best possible people to step into classrooms and teach, the answer is we need more.  Could schools operate with less money?  Sure.  What do you want to get rid of?  The music program that I had the honor of teaching in for the last 15 years is, in my opinion, pretty good.  I would argue that the marching band I directed was run as cheaply as any other quality ensemble of it’s type in the Midwest.  Is it necessary for Johnston High School to have a high quality marching band?  I guess that depends on who you ask.  If you ask the 200 kids who put in hundreds of hours outside of school time to put on an entertaining show, who learn leadership skills, who learn how to collaborate, and who develop musical skills that they can use for a lifetime they would say that it is necessary.  Someone else may disagree.  Some may even believe that the whole arts program at Johnston High School is superfluous.  Eliminating the arts at Johnston High School would save a lot of money.  The tricky thing is that I don’t think that’s what our community wants.  So, where else would we cut?  I have heard it suggested in responses to this blog that teachers are eating up school budgets with our bloated salaries.  It doesn’t feel that way to me.  Teachers want to be compensated fairly.  We are professionals (although the Governor of Wisconsin seems ready to allow anyone with a pulse to be in front of a classroom) who have studied, gotten degrees, refined our craft and chosen to work with young people.  The National Association of Colleges and Employers found that beginning teachers make an average of $30,377, while computer programmers, accounting professionals, and registered nurses all made over $43,000 annually.  Let me say right here that I think those professions deserve every penny (especially nurses) that they earn.  If we believe that schools will only improve with the best possible teachers in every classroom then wouldn’t it make sense to offer salaries that would attract the very best into the profession?  I have said this many times before, but if there is an army of highly educated educators running around Iowa who are eager to take smaller salaries and who will dramatically improve student achievement they should gather together and make themselves known.  I haven’t met these educators who will produce world-class 21st century learners and are eager to do it for less money.  Interestingly, Iowa’s Republican legislators don’t say much about teacher salaries in public.  They don’t talk about teacher unions in public much either.  I wish they would.  I wish they would talk about what they want Iowa’s schools to look like.

Iowa’s teachers want our schools to be safe.  We want our schools to be incubators for creative thinking.  We want time to collaborate with one another.  We want time to meet with struggling students and with students who need expanded opportunities.  We want our schools to be filled with the best technology and we want to integrate that technology into our student’s learning to create unique products and outcomes that demonstrate what they know and what they think.  We want our students to have choices.  We do want to be fairly compensated.  We want our local school districts to determine things like when we start and end the school year.  Most of us want our students to take less standardized testing.  We want our kids to read for pleasure.  We want our kids to think critically.  We want our students to challenge us.  We want time to study best teaching practices in order to help our students achieve more.  We want our students to write poems, music, plays; we want our students to draw, exercise, make movies, and act.  My colleagues in my school district will do our best to make all of that happen this year.  As a matter of fact we have spent our summer studying and talking about how to ask better questions, how to give better feedback, how to study data, how to be better teammates, how to assess more effectively, how to integrate technology in our classrooms more, and we have talked about how to do all of this without knowing what resources will be available because our legislature and Governor couldn’t make education spending a priority.

That’s what schools want.  Are there parts of that that people don’t want for our students?  Iowa’s public schools do incredible things.  It doesn’t happen without resources.  A commenter on this blog remarked that “teachers care more about bitching and whining than they do about teaching.”  I disagree.  I have cornered the market on whining to our Governor and our legislators all by myself.  My colleagues bust their butts.  I don’t know who made that comment, but they don’t have any idea what they are talking about.  Spend one day in a special education classroom and say that.  Spend one day in the art room at my school and say that.  Spend one day in my school district and say that to my face.  Money isn’t the answer to making our schools world class, people are.  Teachers, administrators, parents, and most importantly students will make Iowa’s schools world-class.

So, if there are any Iowa legislators reading this blog, how about it?  How about you get together and honor all of that work you put in on the budget?  I promise that my school district would put that $738,000 to good use just this ONE TIME.  For that I promise that my colleagues and I will make our schools better.  Of course, you’ve got us over a barrel because we will do that any way.

As a bonus to the blog, below is from a student of mine, Marcus Miller.  Marcus is a young conservative, a great student, an outstanding musician, and a recent high school graduate.  This is what is on the mind of a young conservative Iowan:

Dear Governor Branstad,

My name is Marcus Miller and I am a recent graduate from Johnston High School. I am writing this letter to express my discontent and disappointment with regards to several decisions surrounding public school education. Before I delve into why I believe you made the wrong decisions in multiple cases, I think it is worth noting that I am a fellow conservative. I agree with you on many things, however, I do not agree with the way you have approached public education this past year. It is also worth noting that I helped you get re-elected; I volunteered for a local grassroots campaign called Iowa Victory, which helped all Republicans get elected in the 2014 election cycle. I attended the GOP victory party on election night, and was inspired at the time hearing your commitment to making Iowa schools world class. Little did I know those were merely words used to deceive voters like me.

The first decision I was surprised about and disappointed in was the school start date issue. I know this issue has already been resolved, but I am not going to forget this stubborn decision. Ironically, having the school start date be left up to local control is a conservative principle; why aren’t you representing what Iowans voted for? The list of reasons why it should have been left up to local control is endless. Based off your responses to the compelling reasons why to leave it up to local school districts, I can only conclude that you value the state fair over our schools, our students, and ultimately the future generations.

The second decision I am in disagreement with you about is your veto to give schools a one time $55.7 million education boost. Given the fact that I just graduated, I can assure you that schools need more money. There are a variety of good programs that are being cut because of schools struggling to find money. I have no special interest in this case. I am not a teacher who is asking for more money, I am not a school board member asking for more money, nor am I an administrator asking for more money. I am simply a concerned Iowan who cares about the future generation and the future of the Iowa public schools.

At the end of the day, I think we both can agree that we want what is best for our students. However, taking a superfluous amount of time to give schools notice of what their budgets will look like, combined with not giving schools the necessary funding they need in order to best serve the students of Iowa is not doing what is best. In fact, it is doing the opposite.

I am afraid that I have fallen victim to supporting a politician who gives empty promises. If you truly want to be a leader, stop embracing the partisan trap that has essentially obliterated all hope for progress and start looking for solutions. I am tired of Republicans and Democrats not getting anything done due to fear of rejection within one’s respected party; I am tired of partisan politics. Regrettably, I can only believe that you are part of this problem.

I ask that you please stand up and do what is right for our students. This next school year, schools all across the state will barely be scraping by. This will obviously have a negative impact on our students. I ask that you reflect on your decisions, and learn for the next time you have the chance to make decisions for our students. Because our schools deserve better, our students deserve better, and Iowa deserves better.

Sincerely,

Marcus Miller

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7 Comments

  1. Governor Branstad is in a tough spot. I completely understand the ire of people who can’t fathom the veto of critical funding for our schools (and other state services). On the other hand, I also understand the message he is sending to legislators: getting in the habit of funding essential programs with one-time money is precarious and unsustainable. We can’t (and shouldn’t) fund education with payday loans. Either set education as a priority and fund it fully in the first place (necessitating taking a stand on cuts elsewhere in the budget), or fund it at a level which is in line with your priorities (which is what the legislature did). I’m not sure his veto is so much a lack of support of education as it is a holding the feet of the legislators to the proverbial fire. Say what you want about Branstad (I’m neither defending nor vilifying him), the first step has to be to get legislators in place that will send the Governor a budget that adequately funds education to begin with. If/when the Governor vetoes *that* budget, then we can go to work on that branch of our legislature.

  2. It really is a sad commentary on us as a society when people who entertain us by playing games make millions of dollars a year while educators spend their own money to buy supplies for their classrooms. Our priorities are seriously out of whack.

  3. So many strong points, and Marcus has great ideas too. I’m going to take a slightly different approach, however. The legislature needs to do what was asked of them; pass a two-year comprehensive education bill that will provide stability to schools and allow for time to debate the next two-year plan. They need to stop debating bills about fireworks before they set a budget for schools to work with. Two points also that must be challenged, too; schools are NOT getting less money than last year. They are getting more, but not as much more as they might have. (And, that amount still might not have been enough…but that’s another debate.) And, we cannot compare the salaries of teachers to the other professionals mentioned. Teachers work about 195 days. Nurses work year-round. When we start working 12 months (obviously with vacations like other professionals), then we can make accurate comparisons that working people will accept. That would, however, cost taxpayers loads more, and I am not seeing that happening any time soon. My rant…done. 😉

    • I love to hear from you Carole. I agree entirely that the legislature needs to budget for 2 years. I know my view is biased, but given that one side of the aisle simply didn’t move at all from a number that was very low (1.25% growth for education when state revenues have been up 5-6% seems like a slap in the face), the two houses got what they could get after negotiations. The Governor was AWOL on all of this. He is the leader of his party and if had any teeth at all at this point he coulda/shoulda/woulda put his shoulder into getting a two year agreement at numbers that were passable by both chambers. He just didn’t do that. As for the salary comparisons, I’m with you that it’s a slippery slope. I am all for a year round calendar. The point I was trying clumsily to make is that there is surely a correlation between salary and the quality of those who choose to enter any given field. I have said forever that I get paid a fair salary. But, if part of the answer to better schools is recruiting better young people into the profession, salary matters. Thanks for sharing your thoughts Carole, I have a ton of respect for your opinion.

  4. Some teachers, like my husband, do work year-round. Summer band lessons, continuing ed, and other teaching commitments take up all but about 3 weeks of his time each year. Add in all of the nights and weekends he puts in for school activities and that’s gone, too. Not all teachers are in a position to ‘simply get a summer job’ if they want more money. We don’t have children, but friends depend on a teaching parent to be home during the summer to save on daycare costs to get by. Paying teachers fairly will go a long way toward getting quality teachers, and many districts are not able to pay teachers what they are worth and the students suffer. When quality young teachers are quitting education because they can make more money working at Walmart to pay the bills, that’s a sad state of affairs. When excellent older teachers stay at the same district for 40 years because they know they will never be rehired if they move because they’re worth too much money, that’s also sad. There are a lot of great teachers with 10 – 15 years’ experience trapped in their current jobs because school districts struggling for money are forced to hire brand new teachers in order to cut costs, and that affects students as well. People are frustrated– taxpayers see more and more money thrown toward schools with fewer results. The government partisan system is broken. The schools DO need more money, but they also need to be able to do the job they need to do without the government deciding where that money goes or we’ll see a continuing decline in Iowa’s proud history of quality education.

  5. It took about 10 minutes online to find the following information.

    Cost per student in public education in the US
    $12401 per year

    http://nces.ed.gov/fastfacts/display.asp?id=66

    Number of students enrolled in Iowa public schools in fall of 2011
    481,226

    http://iowa.educationbug.org/public-schools/

    Assuming no significant change in enrollments over the last 4 years

    That would place funding for iowa students somewhere in the neighborhood of $6 BILLION. A far cry from the $4.3B that we’ve chosen to fund our schools with. Another reason to give significant praise to the teachers of this state to have achieved the results they have with what we’ve provided.

    I understand the situation, i certainly don’t spend money I don’t have, but sometimes you need to reassess your priorities and apparently investing $56Million in our children this year is not one of those priorities for the governor or the legislation.

  6. Patrick J. Kearney is a brilliant person, educator, mentor an musician. My children Gaby (JHS 2011) and Brian (2015) have been blessed to have Mr. Kearney and their teacher. I cannot imagine a world without educators like Mr. Kearney. To all of those that don’t think PJK knows what he is talking about NEWSFLASH PJK is too smart NOT to do his homework.

    What planet does our Governor live when he cannot see see the value in our public school system? These kids are our future – it is our responsibility to get them there.

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