Dear Governor Branstad,
I hope you have had a great summer. As you might know, I am a teacher. I have spent my summer around the schools in my district. You might be surprised at how busy our schools are in June and July. I was around day care programs that were providing lots of activities to kids of all ages. I saw marching band rehearsals preparing for a local parade and for the upcoming marching season. I saw summer classes taking place. I saw athletic teams practicing and games occurring all summer long for some sports. Our schools are busy places.
On July 2nd you vetoed $56 million in resources for Iowa’s schools. A recent poll shows that only 29% of Iowans agree with that veto. That’s not a lot of support. The same poll shows that for one of the first times in your many years as Governor that your approval rating is below 50%. Only 42% of Iowans approve of the job that you are doing as Governor. That’s lower than Iowans approval of President Obama, and if recent presidential candidates coming through Iowa are to be believed, he’s not all that popular these days. Polling data here: http://www.publicpolicypolling.com/main/2015/08/general-election-tight-in-iowa.html#more
I am going to assume that you believe you were doing the right thing when you proposed to only increase education spending in Iowa by 1.25% at a time when Iowa has millions of dollars in surplus money and when state revenues are growing at a rate of around 6%. Somehow the narrative you have been presented is that school districts across Iowa are throwing money at programs and resources that are unnecessary. The narrative that you have been presented is that teachers are overpaid and are gouging Iowa’s taxpayers. The narrative that it seems you have been presented with is that Iowa’s school boards aren’t able to determine the needs and wants of their communities. You are getting that narrative from somewhere. I’m not exactly sure where though. Those who might believe that don’t seem to be speaking up. I assume that some of them are part of the 29% of Iowans who agree with your veto of school funding, but they don’t seem to be very visible. I would love to know who they are, but I have a feeling you aren’t going to out them, so let’s move on from that.
It has been suggested to me that those of us believe Iowa’s schools should be adequately funded haven’t done a very good job sharing our narrative with you. That may be fair, so I would like to share my version of this story with you. I am a parent and I am a teacher. I have been an Iowan for 43 of my 48 years. My story is my own, but over the course of the last six months I have been in contact with thousands of Iowans who make me believe that my story isn’t unusual. I went to kindergarten in Adair, I graduated high school in Ames, I graduated from Drake University, I have taught in Remsen, LeMars, Des Moines, Dallas Center-Grimes, West Des Moines, and Johnston. I recall a time when education wasn’t a political issue in Iowa. My parents moved to Iowa 43 years ago because of the reputation of Iowa’s schools. That reputation was built by parents, students, educators, legislators, and business leaders who believed that if Iowa’s schools were the best anywhere Iowa would be stronger because of it. I don’t suspect that state resources were unlimited in those days, but I don’t recall state leaders questioning school boards and school leaders about the need for reasonable funding. It was assumed that local schools were doing what was best for kids.
When I was a student in Ames I remember my schools as places where I was safe, supported, and challenged. Teachers like Mr. Kelly, Mrs. Boyd, Mr. Jones, Mr. Dorr, Ms. Wilson, Mr. Clinton, Ms. Quint, Mr. Gartz, Mr. Wiser, Mr. Krull, and many others engaged me in important and purposeful learning. I became a teacher in Iowa because I wanted to be like them. As I have taught and watched my son go to school I can promise you that our schools are still places where young people go to feel safe, supported, and challenged. My son learns from and I work among educators who care about not only what students are learning, but how to make them want to learn even more.
In recent years the narrative in our schools has changed a little bit though. Class sizes are bigger. Good teachers are leaving the profession at a higher rate than in the past. School districts are having to make painful choices about what programs to sustain and what programs to cut or eliminate. Iowans don’t hold their heads quite as high when it comes to education. That’s too bad. Somewhere the story is being told that our schools aren’t what they used to be. Yet, I see schools that are focused on young people; schools that are focused on trying to do our best with the resources we are given and the challenges that the 21st century brings to our classrooms. Our schools are working harder as hard as they ever have to serve our communities. I believe that if you ask Iowan’s about THEIR schools in THEIR communities you will hear stories about great things happening.
In my community you will hear that we want our students to be challenged. We want students to have access to relevant and meaningful technology. We will tell you that we want arts programs and activities that demand creativity, dedication, and teamwork. We will tell you that we want all students to learn. We will tell you that we want schools to hire the best possible teachers to be in front of classrooms. I also believe that if you asked our community what we could do without in our schools we would have a hard time answering that question. If there are throwing money at programs that aren’t helping young people, I am struggling to find them.
Iowans are telling you about our schools Governor Branstad. Whether they are telling you through polls that show that very few Iowans agree with your approach to education funding or through emails and calls and letters, they are telling you their story. You have a chance to bring Iowans together and restore their confidence that Iowa’s legislators care about our schools. You have not only a bully pulpit from which to preach, but you have an opportunity in January to put your money where your mouth is. If you can identify where Iowa’s schools are wasting resources, be specific. If you believe Iowa’s teachers are overpaid, say it. If you believe that charter schools and more education privatization is the answer then say so. But, if you listen to what Iowans are telling you, you have an opportunity to say that you believe that schools should be supporting every learner, that schools should rattle with the force of activities and programs that engage every student, you have the opportunity to say that Iowa is going to embrace the work that teachers do and support them in the challenges that they face. When you give your Condition of the State speech in January you can call on legislators to immediately come to agreement on support for Iowa’s schools. You can call on Iowans to demonstrate that our schools will once again be world class by empowering school boards and communities to make our schools the best anywhere. States like Kansas and Wisconsin are swimming in the opposite direction. I can promise you that Iowans want to come together to do something different than those states. Your poll numbers can’t be separated from the belief that you are moving us towards policies in line with what is happening in Wisconsin and Kansas. You have the opportunity make Iowa stand strong. Be that leader Mr. Governor.
I am continuing to call on Iowans to come together in Des Moines on Saturday, January 16th. As our legislators gather that month we need to tell our story to them. If those whose narrative is that we should continue down the path of choking off funding to our schools want to rally together to speak up I invite them to do so, but those of us who believe it is time for Iowa to return to the days of being world class through our actions in the classroom and in the statehouse are going to celebrate our heritage and tell our story on January 16th.
I would love to have you join us as we celebrate Iowa’s schools on January 16th Governor Branstad. We would love to tell you our story.
Patrick J. Kearney