Dear Governor Branstad,
I read your Des Moines Register editorial from October 20th and I immediately thought of the Mark Twain quote that reads, “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damn lies, and statistics.” As an educator I actually think that data matters. The thing is that we all pick and choose what data we care to believe. I am as guilty of that as anyone. Here is the thing though, your “facts” just don’t tell the story of education in Iowa over the last 20 years. First, your reference to dropping “academic achievement” is limited to some standardized test scores. The reality is that on the test that Iowa students care the most about, the ACT, Iowa finished 3rd among states where 50 percent or more of the students take the test. Iowa also continues to lead the nation in graduation rate, which should be a huge source of celebration for the work our schools are doing. Yet, you tell Iowans that Iowa’s schools are failing.
Here is the thing Mr. Governor; if your measure of success is standardized test scores, then let’s go big or go home. Cut the arts, cut extra-curricular programs, cut industrial technology programs, cut world languages, and let’s teach to those tests my friend. I think you and I would actually agree that you don’t need highly paid professionals to simply teach to these standardized tests, so let’s cut teacher salaries and allow a less qualified workforce to teach our students. Is that what you think Iowans want? Your logic seems to be that Iowa’s schools are wasting money with your only evidence being that our state’s scores on some limited standardized testing is not what it was 20 years ago. You need be lead us Terry. If that’s what you want, make it so. If your summer as Emperor Terry has taught us anything it is that you can do whatever it is that you want.
Here is the thing though Mr. Governor, I think Iowans measure success by more than standardized test scores, and I think you know it. You wouldn’t be trying to paint this bleak picture in October if you didn’t sense that Iowans are ready to actually have a real conversation about Iowa’s schools. You have done all you can to make sure that revenues are down (through tax breaks to big business) in order to force our schools into austerity. You are cherry-picking statistics that make it look as though our public schools are failing in order to whip up support for privatizing our schools. You make it appear that your teacher leadership initiative (which I am proudly a part of) does not come at the expense of other programs. You didn’t supplement school funding with $150 million to support teacher leadership (which is what past Director of Education Jason Glass asked you to do), instead you took $150 million from schools to fund the program. No matter how good the program is, the state is not funding it as promised. In addition, when you say that school spending has increased as a percentage of the state budget by a very small amount, you fail to mention that much of that funding is to back fill tax cuts. Public opinion polls suggest that you are on the wrong side of this debate in Iowa.
You say that you are hopeful that the legislature agrees on education early in their 2016 session. So do I Mr. Governor, especially since they have broken Iowa law the last several years by not making their funding decisions in a timely manner. There is also the matter of your veto of $56 million of funding that the legislature approved last summer (made on the last possible day, leaving schools no time to adjust). I have a feeling the legislature (and schools) may be a little wary of your trustworthiness at this point. You have given every indication that you are going to submit a bleak budget for public schools. Why in the world would we believe that education funding will move quickly through the legislature? Have you shown any willingness to compromise with those who believe that we have not adequately funded schools in recent years?
I actually don’t doubt that you want to see student achievement improve, but I just don’t think you have any earthly idea what that looks like in 2015, or how it might happen based on your priorities for our state. This week I saw a group of high school students teach 2nd graders about biology with live animals in a great learning opportunity for the older and younger kids. I sat in a classroom where a history teacher connected his students, via Skype, with a Russian history expert. Just today I sat in a gym with several hundred kids auditioning for the All-State music festival, working hard to achieve greatness. All of those experiences will be less likely to occur when you present a bleak budget proposal to the Iowa legislature this January. Busing the 2nd graders to work with the high school students will be harder, it will be more difficult to have the technology available to expand our classroom walls through technology like Skype, and our music programs will continue to be diminished as schools are forced to make cuts in their programming. You say we don’t need another prolonged session fight over school funding. If you do what I think you are going to do in January, I disagree. We need to have this fight and we need to have it now. Just because you have crowned yourself emperor doesn’t mean the rest of us have to bow down. I actually want you to do what real leaders do and bring us together.
I appreciate that you are talking about education in October. Let’s have the conversation now. All I ask is that you listen to your citizens. If you can sell austerity to all of us, more power to you. But, if Iowans tell you that they want their schools to be funded, will you listen? I guess we will find out.
Patrick J. Kearney
(I am adding the below editorial from the Des Moines Register, which does a great job of articulating the above message.)