2015 was not a good year for those who advocate on behalf of Iowa’s public schools. The Governor proposed a weak 1.25% increase for public schools in January, while proposing a 9% increase for his own office. Breaking their own laws, the Iowa legislature did not act on school funding until June, long after schools had to certify their budgets on April 15th. Republican legislators would not negotiate for anything more than the 1.25% increase, but did compromise by voting to support schools with $56 million in one-time funding (meant to go to one-time purchases such as textbooks, equipment, etc). That bill sat on the Governor’s desk for 27 days and minutes before going on the July 4th holiday the Governor vetoed the one-time money, meaning Iowa’s public schools got only the 1.25% increase that he had proposed in January at a time when Iowa has a $300 million dollar surplus and $700 million in reserves. Iowans called for legislators to come back in session to override the Governor’s veto. Republican Representative Bobby Kaufmann said, “I’ve never seen such an outpouring of constituent requests for a special session.” He went on to add that the requests were from people who weren’t typically political, but were simply angry about the vetoes. I have a hard time believing that Rep. Kaufmann was the only legislator receiving an outpouring of requests and yet there will be no special session (http://qctimes.com/news/state-and-regional/illinois/no-special-session-in-iowa-even-with-gop-support/article_7c83c745-e071-5168-9211-62756459718d.html). Over 40 Iowa Superintendents have publicly spoken out against the Governor’s vetoes (http://iowademocrats.org/40-and-counting-iowa-superintendents-continue-to-condemn-branstad-education-veto/).
Here we are. It is now August and schools are getting ready to open. I have talked with a few school Superintendents who almost feel as though they are playing a game of chicken with the Governor. It is as if the Governor is daring schools to cut programs and deny opportunities to Iowa’s young people. If Superintendents were in the business of playing games with the Governor their best move might well be to begin to shut down programming in order to make a point, but schools are in the business of doing what is best for their students, and so schools will make do. Iowa schools will make do with over 1000 fewer classroom teachers. Iowa schools will make do without needed textbooks and technology that might have been provided by the $56 million dollars in one-time money that the Governor vetoed. Public schools will step up and do what is best for Iowa’s young people because that is what Iowa’s public schools have always done; in good times and bad.
Those who care about public education in Iowa are frustrated. The timing of the Governor’s veto was intended to provide time for public school advocates to “quit whining.” The Governor is counting on the fact that once Iowa’s schools go back to work that our memories of his lack of leadership on education will fade. We can’t let this happen. The Governor and legislators need to be held accountable for their lack of support for public education and we need to demand that they show up this winter ready to listen to their constituents and to put their real agendas on the table. I didn’t really become active in advocacy this year until April. It was too little and too late.
Iowa’s education advocates need to be ready this coming year to be proactive. We can’t afford to allow the Governor to set the agenda without hearing from us. With this in mind, I am proposing that parents, students, teachers, administrators, school board members, and concerned citizens plan on coming to Des Moines on Saturday, January 16, 2016 to let our legislators know that we are going to be heard. Why January 16th? This will be before the legislature begins to take up budget conversations. Iowa will also have a unique spotlight shining on us due to the Iowa caucuses. If we can get hundreds of Iowans to gather in January to demand that our legislators support public schools we have a unique opportunity to shine a spotlight on education issues on the national stage. I will promise to find a place to gather and I promise that we will be heard.
I am also recommending that education advocates begin to organize locally to demand transparency from their legislators. At a time when Iowa has unprecedented budget reserves our legislators need to tell us why Iowa is slipping in per pupil spending. At a time when we can watch what is happening to our neighbors in Kansas (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/kansas-teacher-shortage_55b913ebe4b0074ba5a729d5) our legislators need to tell us how we aren’t heading down that exact same path. I am proposing that every legislative district in Iowa form a coalition of education advocates to work together to insist that our legislators are responsive to what Iowans want for their local schools. Our local representatives must not see us as a series of individuals, but they must see us as a coalition who care about our communities. We must get them to speak on the record about what they believe about public education, push them to speak beyond the talking points that their party hands to them, and we must track how they vote. We must also be willing to make clear to them that these coalitions won’t go away after the legislative sessions finish. These coalitions are going to go the ballot box and be heard next November. I believe that we have legislators who believe that they have to stick to the party line because they are afraid they won’t be re-elected if they step out of line. We need to make it clear that sticking to the party line won’t cut it this year.
Are you with me? The Governor has asked schools to “stop complaining,” and a Republican Senator asked us to “stop whining.” They have a point. It is time to stop simply talking. We need to take action. I hope you will put January 16th in your calendar and plan to join me to make a stand for our public schools. I also am eager to help organize action groups around the state to demand action from our legislators. We weren’t effective in the last few months, but that doesn’t mean we weren’t right and it doesn’t mean we are going to stop. We are just going to do it better this time around.