Dear Representative Upmeyer,
Congratulations on your recent election as Speaker of the Iowa House of Representatives. It is a big job and an important job. It is also a tough job. The 2015 legislative session left a lot of Iowans with a bad taste in our mouths. With Republicans in control of the House and Democrats in control of the Senate I believe Iowans want the parties to work together to get things done. That is not what we saw happen. Even worse, when the two bodies did come together and the Governor disregarded your work through his July 2nd vetoes, your party chose not to bring the legislature back into session to stand up for the legislation you passed. Can you assure Iowans that anything will change on your watch as Speaker?
I am an educator, and yes, I am a member of the Iowa State Education Association. Regardless of how people like Chris Christie, Scott Walker, John Kasich or others may paint us, members of teacher’s unions are advocates for young people. We aren’t embarrassed to be teachers, nor are we embarrassed to say what our agenda is. Our agenda is to provide a world-class education to the the young people of Iowa. I think it is safe to say that Iowa’s teachers stand with Iowa’s school administrators and members of Iowa’s school boards to say that our agenda is the same. We want Iowa’s public schools to be the best in the world. We are the people who are on the front lines of making Iowa’s schools better. Universally we are telling you that it is impossible to meet the needs of our communities with resources that don’t keep up with our increasing costs. There is much more to the conversation about making Iowa’s public schools better, but how Iowa distributes it’s resources is the conversation at hand. I promise that if you want to engage Iowa’s educators in a conversation about curriculum, instruction, and assessments that we would happily engage in that as well. Also, I would ask that you not take the simple-minded approach that tries turn a conversation about how we prioritize resources into an accusation that it is all about teachers trying to get rich. That’s a false argument. If we want to start a conversation about how we attract and retain the best possible teachers for Iowa’s classrooms, that is a valuable conversation. If you can figure out how we do that without competitive salaries, our ears are open. But, don’t turn the fact that every Iowa school district is telling you that last year’s funding was inadequate into an accusation that schools are inefficient or that teachers are overpaid. The reality is that our communities want smaller class sizes, strong programs that include the arts and related arts, constant differentiation and choice for our students, modern technology, and the best possible teachers in every classroom. Those things have a cost.
I am going to lay my cards on the table Rep. Upmeyer. Your leadership in the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) is concerning to me and many others. While the agenda of those of us who believe in strong Iowa schools is easy to see and understand, the agenda of those who are not supportive of adequate public school resources is less transparent. ALEC is funded by the interests of large corporations who largely do not reside in Iowa. The primary rallying cry of those who opposed adequate funding for Iowa’s schools last year was that Iowa could not afford it, yet Iowa has over $700 million dollars in reserves and had a budget surplus of around $300 million. Iowa’s revenues increased at a rate of around 6%, yet schools only got a 1.25% increase. The governor’s office got a 9% increase. Is there a reason why the legislature believes that Iowa’s schools operate in world where resources aren’t helpful in supporting the work they are doing? So, let’s be honest and admit that Iowa has the resources to more fully support Iowa’s public schools. Now the question becomes about priorities. Even as Republican legislators talked about how little money we have to support public schools we have significantly cut corporate property tax rates. I just read the other day that the ultra-conservative Wells family (of Blue Bunny Ice Cream Fame) are going to get $644,000 in tax breaks (coincidentally roughly the amount that the Governor vetoed from my school district). I am certain that the Wells family really needs that money, but are you willing to argue they need it more than Iowa’s young people? Here is the thing, I don’t find that those who oppose adequate school funding have been all that transparent. So, I have a few short questions I would love to have answers to.
- What role will ALEC play in setting your legislative priorities?
- Are you in favor of spending more taxpayer dollars on more charter and private schools in Iowa?
- Are teachers in Iowa overpaid? (with the follow up) Do want to break up unions in Iowa?
- If Iowa schools have an excess of resources, which programs in your local school district do want to see cut?
- Is the path that Iowa is following regarding the funding of public education different than that of Kansas? Do you believe Republicans have been effective in improving public education in Kansas?
- Will you see to it that Iowa’s legislators follow their own law and pass school funding legislation within 30 days of the Governor’s budget proposal?
I think those are all fair questions. They are also questions that I didn’t see answered by many legislators last winter. Again, it comes down to transparency and priorities. Somewhere I believe I saw that you made a case that you belonged to ALEC because it was “solutions-driven.” So, what are their (your) solutions for making Iowa’s schools better with fewer resources? That is where the conversation needs to begin. Only 29% of Iowan’s agreed with Governor Branstad’s veto of school funding dollars. I don’t think that Iowans are going to buy the argument that there isn’t enough money or that Iowa’s schools are sufficiently funded this time around. If your argument is that Iowa’s schools are inefficient or that those who support public education are simply “whiners” you are going to have back that up with facts.
I truly believe that there is a place for real dialogue about what is best for Iowa’s schools. I don’t presume to speak for anyone other than myself, but I believe Iowans are going to ask legislators to be transparent and to work together in the coming year. I welcome your voice to the dialogue about public education. I invite you to join with me on January 16th in Des Moines (a location will be announced very soon) to talk about how we can celebrate Iowa’s public schools this year. We will be holding an event entitled Celebrate Iowa’s Public Schools on that day and we will be talking about how we go about making Iowa’s schools the best in the world.
Iowa’s teachers are excited that school has started as evidenced by the video below from some of my friends in West Des Moines. This is who teaches kids in Iowa.
I look forward to hearing more from you in the coming weeks and months.
Patrick J. Kearney
Parent, Teacher, Learner