Dear Governor Branstad,
I hope you have had a great summer. Iowa is a great place to be for political junkies like you and I every four years around this time. I know that we are biased, but Iowa really is a great place to hold the first caucuses, because Iowans take the role seriously. Iowans care about the issues that directly impact the future of our country. We don’t always agree, but we take the discussions seriously.
Over the course of the next few weeks I imagine that you will begin the process of preparing your legislative agenda for the 2016 legislative session. It feels like most Iowans typically only become interested in the legislative process after you have created your budget and presented your priorities to the legislature in January. I am hopeful that this year you will listen to Iowans as you prepare your priorities. Not only that, I hope you engage in a conversation with Iowans about our shared priorities. The Des Moines Register came out today and asked if you were behaving like an autocrat (http://www.desmoinesregister.com/story/opinion/editorials/2015/09/27/editorial-branstad-behaving-like-autocrat/72626716/). I don’t have an answer to that question, but I know how you could debunk that school of thought; you could engage in a conversation with Iowans.
Obviously, I want to have a conversation about Iowa’s schools. First, I actually want to commend you for saying what I think we all knew was true this fall. You support more “school choice” (http://www.thegazette.com/subject/news/government/branstad-advocates-for-school-choice-20150916). I’m glad you said it, because it allows Iowans to understand why your budget last year for public schools didn’t keep up with inflation, and why you vetoed $56 million in spending for Iowa’s K-12 schools. You seem eager to follow the playbook of Governor Brownback in Kansas (http://www.kansascity.com/opinion/opn-columns-blogs/barbara-shelly/article24432004.html) and Governor Walker in Wisconsin (http://www.jsonline.com/blogs/purple-wisconsin/280089862.html). Those seem like curious choices when Kansas is clearly a mess and people all over the country ran away from Governor Walker like he was covered in toxic waste when they looked into his record in Wisconsin.
So, Mr. Governor, connect the dots for me. You say you want world-class schools in Iowa? Which schools? If I read your comments correctly it would seem you want more students to have access to non-public school options. Here are the dots I need you to connect for me. While you argue that you want to create more school choice for Iowans, the reality is that charter schools are actually about less choice. It is probably true that charter schools can operate cheaper than public schools, but there is a simple reason for that; they offer less services with less accountability. Western Michigan University professor Gary Mirron points out that charter schools cost less to run (and provide more profit for their owners) because they don’t provide many of the services that public schools are required to offer, in particular, special education services, student support services such as counseling and health, vocational education, arts education, and transportation. In addition, are you able to help Iowans believe that by allowing those interested in profit to take over the education of more Iowa students that we won’t see the corruption that has plagued many other charter school programs (http://billmoyers.com/2014/05/05/charter-schools-gone-wild-study-finds-widespread-fraud-mismanagement-and-waste/)?
There are a few other dots I need you to connect. Among the stated reasons that Republicans have supported very minimal growth in education funding in recent years is because you say that Iowa’s revenues are limited. Yet, in 2013 you signed a tax cut that is costing Iowans around $260 million for this fiscal year. This is revenue that could be used to support the types of services that Iowans tell you they believe in, including schools, clean water, and health services. Instead, your theory is that the 2013 business-focused tax cut (http://www.desmoinesregister.com/story/money/business/2015/09/20/property-tax-cut-has-big-price-tag-state/72516830/) will “trickle down” to all Iowans at some point. The reality is that it leaves Iowa unable to maintain a variety of resources. There is no evidence that a “trickle down” policy has ever been effective in creating sustained economic growth. Peter Fisher of the Iowa Policy Project makes the case much better than I ever could in this article: http://www.desmoinesregister.com/story/opinion/columnists/iowa-view/2015/03/06/tax-cuts-priorities-problem/24485391/.
Are you an autocrat? I guess we will know more in a couple of months. Polling would suggest that Iowans are not all that supportive of your most recent policy decisions (http://www.publicpolicypolling.com/main/2015/08/general-election-tight-in-iowa.html) with only 29% of Iowans agreeing with your K-12 funding veto in July. Only 20% of Iowans agreed with your decision to close 2 of Iowa’s mental health institutions. Iowans also seem pretty dubious about your plans to privatize Medicaid as well (http://www.thegazette.com/subject/opinion/reject-iowas-medicaid-privatization-20150905). Iowans also massively rejected Scott Walker, who was running on a platform, rubber stamped by the Koch Brothers, that was largely built on bashing teacher’s unions.
I think it is fair to ask you to connect the dots to how your policies are representing Iowa values. When it comes to education, who are you inviting to have a conversation about world-class schools? Iowans just elected school board members throughout the state. Are they at the table? While over 1000 Iowa teachers got pink-slipped last year, many of us are working hard in our class rooms to make our kids better learners. Are we invited to the table? Are school superintendents who have told you in no uncertain terms that a 1.25% increase in school funding is inadequate invited to the table. What I do know is that your chief education advisor has never worked in public education. I know that you are a founding member of ALEC, whose interest is to privatize education and put it in the hands of those who want to make a profit on teaching our young people. I am curious how you are able to connect some of these dots and make them lead to any kind of support for Iowa’s public schools.
Let’s not wait until January to have these conversations. The great thing about being an Iowan is that we can stand touching noses for a week and never see eye to eye. I would like to touch noses with you Governor Branstad. At the moment we don’t see eye to eye, but I would love to have you connect the dots you are laying out in front of us. This legislative session is going to be important because Iowa legislators are going to have some choices to make. When they go in front of their constituents next November will they be able to sell an agenda that supports more taxpayer dollars going to private and charter schools? Will they be able to sell “trick down” economics? Will your dwindling support among Iowans, combined with an unwillingness to engage in a real dialogue, be helpful to Republican legislators? I guess we will find out.
Patrick J. Kearney