In Case You Needed a(nother) Reason to Vote Against Joni Ernst…and yes it involves Betsy DeVos

On February 7th, 2017, Senator Joni Ernst of Iowa voted to confirm the least qualified person to ever hold a cabinet position in our country.  Betsy DeVos wasn’t an unknown quantity who people thought might “grow into the position”.  No, she was a fully formed member of the SWAMP of profiteers who have been looking to make a few bucks on America’s public schools for quite some time.  At the time of her nomination I reached out to Senator Grassley (thinking he was my “reasonable” senator…oops…my mistake).  I sent him this message (https://www.huffpost.com/entry/a-letter-to-my-senator-regarding-betsy-devos_b_5840b07ae4b04587de5de88b).  It was obviously ineffective as he, along with Senator Ernst and 48 other senators who clearly didn’t care about the future of public education, voted to confirm a person who had never attended a public school, sent her children to a public school, never studied education, never taught in a public school, never led a public school, and had in fact spent her adult lifetime (aside from enjoying the trappings of being a billionaire heiress) doing all she could to dismantle public education.

So, we now find ourselves in the midst of a global pandemic.  People in all professions all over the world are facing unprecedented challenges.  Schools, teachers, and students are among those who are facing incredible challenges in order to continue to provide learning for our young people.  In any other era, teachers and school leaders would be looking for guidance from the Secretary of Education, but right now, not a chance.  There is no chance that Ms. DeVos has the slightest idea how to help our public schools in this moment and not a single thoughtful teacher or school leader is looking to her for leadership, because we know there will be none.

It would be one thing if Ms. DeVos sat in her mansion, wherever it is that she is quarantining herself, and simply stayed quiet.  It would, in many ways, be smart for her to simply step aside and let people who know something about teaching and learning go about the business of trying to make sure young people continue to have opportunities to grow during this unprecedented moment in history.  And yet, she felt the need to “lead.”  So, what has she been doing during the pandemic?  Maybe she has led an initiative to provide technology to young people who don’t have access.  Maybe she is at the forefront of being sure that we make sure our most vulnerable children have meals, given that public school is often the only place they get a solid meal.

If you guessed that Ms. DeVos was dedicating her energy into supporting the needs of our most vulnerable young people, you’d be wrong.  Instead of focusing on the needs of public school students, Ms. DeVos has used this moment in history to increase protections for those who commit sexual assaults on college campuses (https://sports.yahoo.com/new-title-ix-regulations-no-longer-require-coaches-to-report-sexual-misconduct-150637906.html ). In new regulations regarding Title IX, coaches and athletic trainers are no longer mandatory reporters of sexual misconduct and sexual discrimination.  Her changes also include a new definition of sexual harassment that is much more rigid, and a change that schools are now only responsible for incidents that occur on campus or locations related to a school activity.  In essence, she has made it likely that many fewer college students will report sexual assault or harassment and she has created significant protections for not only those who commit sexual assault and harassment, but for the institutions that will benefit from covering up these crimes.

If you know young women who have attended college (sexual harassment does also occur to young men as well, but in much lower numbers) you surely know someone who has been the victim of sexual assault or sexual harassment.  Most assault and harassment victims don’t report it (https://www.projectknow.com/discover/sexual-assaults-on-campus/).  Administrators of colleges and universities are already inclined to be unwelcoming to victims.  Schools don’t want the unwelcome publicity that comes with reports of assault and harassment.  Ms. DeVos’s most recent changes to Title IX make it so that far fewer victims will choose to come forward and it certainly means that school leaders will no longer choose to protect the students they support by reporting criminal behaviors.

This is what Betsy DeVos has chosen to care about during the pandemic.  Protecting giant educational institutions and granting more rights to those who commit sexual assault and harassment.  That’s what she cares about RIGHT NOW.  And you know what’s crazy?  It’s entirely predictable.  This is exactly who she is.  Just as importantly it is exactly who Joni Ernst knew she was voting for on February 7, 2017.  If we return Joni Ernst to the senate in November, we will get more of the SWAMP.  Senator Ernst will continue to vote for nominees whose interests are not to look out for the common good, but their interest is to protect the wealthy, to protect the powerful, and to brush aside the concerns of those who are vulnerable.

There are a lot of reasons to vote against Senator Ernst, but the fact that she voted to confirm the most unqualified cabinet secretary of all time should surely be an important one.  Senator Ernst won’t be calling for any hearing to determine why Ms. DeVos feels it necessary to empower those who are trying to hide sexual assault and harassment on college campuses.  She will simply stay silent, which is exactly what Ms. DeVos and President Trump want her to do.  The swamp is real and Senator Ernst is protecting it every day she is in the senate.  Vote her out in November.

Dear Senator Sinclair

Dear Senator Sinclair,

On the floor of the Iowa Senate today (March 4, 2020) you stated that “no teacher has ever told me that getting rid of collective bargaining is the problem.”  Well Senator, let me be the first.  The gutting of collective bargaining (Chapter 20) in Iowa is a problem for a variety of reasons.

In February of 2017, behind closed doors, Iowa’s Republican lawmakers wrote a bill that took away any meaningful bargaining rights from 180,000 public employees.  The legislation was fast-tracked through the legislature with no real time for Iowans to weigh in.  It was legislation that no Republican ran on in 2016.  It was legislation that no one in Iowa was asking for.  It ended legislation that had been successful for 43 years.

It is notable that when Governor Branstad signed the bill that took away our bargaining rights there was just one man standing next to him with a smug grin on his face.  Drew Klein (a lobbyist for the Koch Brothers and ALEC) was there to celebrate a bill that Iowans never asked for.  Iowans didn’t want to kill collective bargaining, the Koch brothers wanted to kill collective bargaining.  The Koch brothers (now just one Koch brother I suppose) want to kill unions and take away the rights of workers, and Iowa’s Republican legislators are all too willing to take their money and do their bidding.

The gutting of collective bargaining is just a piece of the Republican agenda to weaken public education.  Whether it is the continued underfunding of our schools or the constant flirtation with vouchers, Iowa’s Republican legislators are doing a great deal to undermine public education in our state.  While there are no notable benefits to Iowans in the elimination of bargaining rights for public employees, there are consequences.  The most notable consequence is that conditions for teachers are worse.  We aren’t able to negotiate for sick days, grievance procedures, and most importantly health care.  The Republican anti-teacher agenda seems to assume that there is an army of qualified and dedicated people who are willing to step in and take our teaching jobs as teachers become increasingly frustrated and leave the profession.  If there is an army of educators who want to do this work while our resources are stretched to the bone and our right to negotiate basic working conditions has been taken away, I’d like to see it.

I promise you Senator Sinclair, there are thousands of us who are willing to tell you that the loss of collective bargaining is a problem, you just need to be willing to listen.  Look across the country to Arizona, Kentucky, Oklahoma, West Virginia, Chicago, and Los Angeles and you will see that teachers are reaching their breaking point.  Iowa’s teachers (all teachers really) are facing challenges that were unheard of just a few years ago.  By making working conditions worse for teachers, by not supporting funding that keeps up with the increasing costs of educating our young people, and by supporting vouchers, charters, and other anti-public school measures you are discouraging the next generation of potential educators from wanting to enter our profession.

You’ve got Drew Klein in one ear and an Iowa educator in the other, who are you going to listen to?

Sincerely,

Patrick J. Kearney

Dear President Trump

Dear President Trump,

In your State of the Union speech last week you said, “for too long, countless American children have been trapped in failing government schools.”  I suppose that sentiment isn’t surprising for a man who appointed the least qualified Secretary of Education in history.  Neither you or Ms. Devos have ever spent any meaningful time in America’s outstanding PUBLIC schools.  You call them “government schools,” because that somehow ties our education system to the dysfunction in Washington, D.C. that you preside over.  In truth, the heart of America’s PUBLIC schools are the families who send their children to their neighborhood school, vote in local school board elections, as well as the teachers who live in these communities and understand that a PUBLIC school education is an investment in our communities and the key to a better future for ALL of the young people who walk through our doors every day.

You and Ms. DeVos wish to take our tax dollars and put that money into the hands of those who wish to make a profit off of our students or who have a religious or political agenda to promote.  The private, religious, and charter schools that you and Ms. DeVos hope to send public tax dollars towards can (and do) discriminate against all types of students.  They don’t have to open their doors to students with disabilities if they choose not to.  They can discriminate against LGBTQ students.  They are not held to the same regulatory standards as true PUBLIC schools.  And there is scant evidence that charter schools (like those promoted by Ms. DeVos in Michigan) outperform PUBLIC schools (https://www.nytimes.com/2017/09/05/magazine/michigan-gambled-on-charter-schools-its-children-lost.html).  All that happens is that wealthy men and women who are eager to take our public tax dollars away from public schools get richer, wealthy Mega Churches open schools using public tax dollars to get bigger and richer, and PUBLIC schools (who open their doors to ALL young people) have fewer and fewer resources to meet the needs of their communities.

President Ulysses S. Grant came to my hometown of Des Moines, Iowa and said the following, “Encourage free schools and resolve that not one dollar of money appropriated to their support, no matter how raised, shall be appropriated to the support of any sectarian school.  Resolve that either the state or Nation, or both combined shall support institutions of learning sufficient to afford every child growing up in the land the opportunity of a good common school education, unmixed with sectarian, Pagan, or atheistical tenets.  Leave the matter of religion to the private school supported entirely by private contributions.  Keep the church and state forever separate.”

For all of the talk about the need for “choice” in schools, students would be best served by having more choices in their neighborhood PUBLIC schools.  In Iowa, the continued underfunding of PUBLIC education has led to larger class sizes, reductions in fine arts and related arts offerings, and is leading to a growing exodus of outstanding teachers from the profession (with fewer and fewer young people wanting to teach).  In the State of the Union you encouraged all schools to have vocational and technical education programs.  I agree wholeheartedly with your desire to see those programs grow, and yet the chronic underfunding of PUBLIC schools is making it impossible to create or maintain these programs.

Mr. Trump, I encourage you to visit some public schools and see what is really happening.  Don’t listen to a Secretary of Education who has no experience in PUBLIC schools. Don’t allow our country to repeat the horrific model that she inflicted on the people of Michigan.   I invite you to see schools where kindergartners are doing science experiments in small collaborative groups where they problem-solve issues with the movement of water.  I invite you to a middle school jazz rehearsal where young people are playing music from one of our countries truly authentic art forms.  I invite you to attend a high school literature class where they are studying Elie Wiesel’s “Night” and are talking about the horrors inflicted on an entire class of people by an authoritarian government.  I encourage you to attend a Friday night basketball game anywhere here in Iowa where the community comes together in their PUBLIC school and celebrates the talent of their young people.  I encourage you to attend a physical education class where students with special needs are supported by their peers in building life-long fitness habits.  I would encourage you to attend a school’s Community Night where interpreters are available so that teachers can talk with our immigrant families and discuss the future of their children, encouraging them to dream big.

PUBLIC schools are the cornerstone of American communities.  PUBLIC schools are an investment in all of our futures.  PUBLIC schools open their doors to EVERY young person craving an opportunity to learn, grow, and embrace the future.   No one is trapped in a PUBLIC school; students are welcomed, supported, and lifted up every day in PUBLIC schools.  Great PUBLIC schools shouldn’t be a partisan issue.  Everyone is better off when our PUBLIC schools succeed.

Sincerely,

Patrick J. Kearney

Dear Governor Reynolds

Dear Governor Reynolds,

Iowa’s students deserve more than just talk.  Year after year at the annual Condition of the State speech you and your predecessor talk about the importance of Iowa’s public schools and year after year Iowa’s Republican legislators fund education at a rate that doesn’t keep up with the rising costs that schools face.  Our priorities can be found in how we utilize our resources.  In Iowa we are choosing to provide massive corporations and Iowa’s wealthiest citizens with tax cuts and tax credits that reduce our ability to adequately fund our schools (http://www.iowafiscal.org/tax-plan-facts-vs-spin/).

It’s a rough time for public education.  The fact that our nation’s Secretary of Education is openly hostile to public educators and is a full-time advocate for those who seek to make a profit off of our schools is just an example of the challenges faced by public education today.  In Iowa, teachers have lost the right to bargain for better conditions while facing more and more classroom challenges (https://www.desmoinesregister.com/story/news/2019/11/21/violent-disruptive-behavior-des-moines-schools-police-calls-staff-injuries/4090545002/).  We are also seeing fewer and fewer young people entering the teaching profession (https://www.americanprogress.org/issues/education-k-12/reports/2019/12/03/477311/make-declining-enrollment-teacher-preparation-programs/).  There is evidence that Iowa is already facing teacher shortages in many areas and it is only going to get worse.

The Center for American Progress report says, “The decline in in enrollment in teacher preparation programs does not happen in a vacuum.  Declining interest in the teaching profession may be related to a fundamental mismatch: The work is challenging and complex, but the pay, training, and prestige do not reflect this. College-educated professionals have other career options that provide them with better working conditions and pay and responsibilities that increase over the course of their career as they become more skilled in their chosen field.”  In short, young people don’t want to go into teaching because the work is increasingly difficult and we aren’t addressing the sagging salaries and diminishing working conditions.

It is time for Iowa to put its money where its mouth is.  If Iowa cares about public schools it is going to have to start adequately funding public education.  The gas that our buses run on is getting more expensive, the cost of health care for school employees continues to skyrocket, textbooks are incredibly expensive, technology is costly, and yes, it takes money to attract and retain high-quality educators and the other invaluable professionals who work with our young people.  Iowa’s young people do deserve choices, but those choices need to be found in their public schools.

Funding for Iowa schools has grown at a rate of less than 2% over the last decade (http://www.iowafiscal.org/ifp-news-not-2020-vision/).  Iowa’s school superintendents make it clear that this isn’t enough https://www.publicnewsservice.org/2020-01-24/education/ia-school-superintendents-small-funding-increases-wont-do/a68978-1).  Your recommended 2.5% increase in school funding won’t begin to help our schools catch up to our student’s increasing needs.  You and your Republican colleagues must step up and adequately fund public education.  You also have to put a stop to legislation that punishes hard-working teachers, threatens our retirement system (IPERS), and steers money from public education into the hands of those who want to profit on our students (vouchers).  If you have the courage to put Iowa’s resources towards our students instead of Iowa’s wealthiest people and businesses, you will leave a legacy that you can be proud of.  I am asking you to encourage your Republican colleagues to exceed your 2.5% recommendation for growth in our public schools and prove that education is a priority in your administration. It’s time to stop just talking the talk and actually walk the walk.

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Sincerely,

Patrick J. Kearney

Dear Secretary DeVos, Public Schools Make America Better

Dear Secretary DeVos,

I have friends who were sure that you wouldn’t make it this long as Secretary of Education.  They thought that your lack of experience in public education would catch up to you and you would be overwhelmed by the vastness of the challenges that public schools faces in the 21st century.  They were clearly wrong; you’re still here.  Of course, their belief of your sure demise was based on the premise that your goal was to make schools better for all kids.   Their belief  was also based on the premise that you aren’t very smart.   Well, they were clearly wrong.  You are very smart and you really don’t understand what will make our schools better for ALL young people.

I saw recently where you said that “Government has never made anything better or cheaper, more effective or more efficient.  And nowhere is that more true than in public education.”  I am sure that’s a line that gets a good response in front of the millionaires and billionaires that you regularly speak to.  In a world where you inherit billions of dollars from your parents and your in-laws, I suspect it becomes hard to imagine that people who choose not to profit from pyramid schemes and instead choose to work in the public sector can make the world better.

But here’s the truth Betsy, public schools make young people better.  Public schools are effective.  I can show you hundreds and hundreds of young people who are flourishing while you and those around you are trying to drive public schools into austerity.  While you push an agenda that places corporate (https://www.latimes.com/business/la-fi-devry-student-enforcement-20170831-story.html) and religious interests (https://www.politico.com/story/2016/12/betsy-devos-education-trump-religion-232150) ahead of the needs of ALL young people, teachers (those scary government workers) are spending their own money to buy pencils, art supplies, music books, and much more in order to teach kids.

My friends who didn’t think you’d last in this position took you to just be the latest in a line of grifters looking to turn a buck on public education.  What they might not understand is that you’re a smart woman whose belief system doesn’t allow for the idea that not everything is about turning a profit or converting people to a single religious viewpoint.  You believe that if you can undermine public education by shaking the public’s confidence in hard working teachers and by redirecting public funds to corporations and churches that public schools will fail.  By underfunding public schools, you are working to create the impression that “school choice” will save the day.  Charter schools that get to choose who they want to teach and what they want to teach will become an option in more in selected communities, while public schools will be left to deal with the students that the charter schools turn away, and do so with less resources.

The only problem with your plan is that public school teachers won’t help you out.  As you and state legislators underfund our schools, forcing reductions in programming, increasing class sizes, and increases in standardized testing, teachers will fight back by teaching better, doing it with fewer resources, being more effective, and being more efficient.  I see it every day.  I see teachers using better strategies to differentiate learning for their best students and their most challenging students.  Every day I see teachers in their classrooms at 6:30 am and a 5 pm working to provide quality feedback to their students.  Every day I see teachers spending their own money to provide materials for classroom projects.  Every day I hear teachers begging for more and better professional learning so that they can meet the rapidly changing needs of their students.

You see Betsy, while you’re a very smart woman, teachers know about schools better than you do.  Your mistake is that you don’t understand that those of us who have chosen to serve in public schools know more about teaching and learning than those who just want to get rich.  It doesn’t compute to you that some of us care more about young people than about money.  Oddly, it feels as though you might understand this had you spent any time in public schools as a student, a parent, or a teacher.

I am sure you watched public school teachers strike in Chicago over the last few weeks.  Those brave teachers were fighting for better schools for their students.  They were fighting for teachers to be paid fairly, but just as importantly they were fighting so that their students had access to counselors, librarians, nurses, and caps on class sizes.  These are the kind of things that public schools now have to fight for.  Teachers across the country are going to have to continue to increasingly fight for these things as you work to redistribute tax dollars to charter schools and churches.   But, teachers won’t let you do it without a fight.  While none of my teacher friends have inherited billions of dollars, they are very smart and they are very passionate.  I am certain that you know a lot about yachts, about pyramid schemes, and about religion.  Teachers know about curriculum, pedagogy, and most importantly they know about students.  Public school teachers know how important it is to make the most of every day for ALL students.  Public schools make America better every day and don’t you forget it.

Sincerely,

Pat Kearney

Dear Senator Ernst

Dear Senator Ernst,

School is starting all across Iowa next week.  Parents, teachers, and most importantly students are busy getting ready for classes to start.  It is a time of anxiety for all of us.  Parents are leaving their most important possession at the doorway of the schoolhouse.  Teachers are anxious about increasing class sizes, new initiatives, and just plain keeping up with all of the things that good teachers do.  Students also have a variety of fears, not the least of which is the threat of violence in their schools, which has risen significantly in recent years (https://www.webmd.com/mental-health/news/20190124/study-confirms-steady-rise-in-school-shootings#1).

You were actually in my neck of the woods on Saturday doing a town hall.  First of all, thank you for coming out to talk to Iowans.  It is an important way for you to hear what is on the minds of your constituents.  One of your constituents at that town hall was a teacher from my school district.  Ellie Holland described active shooter training that she underwent last week.  She then asked you a great question, ““My question to you today, Senator, is when can I plan to get back to trainings that simply teach children to read and write?” (https://iowastartingline.com/2019/08/17/after-active-shooting-training-teacher-pleads-with-joni-ernst-on-guns/)

Your answer to her was sort of meandering, but you ultimately shared that “This is a very, very difficult time, and we have gone through many of these. I remember going through all types of drills as a child growing up.”  That is where you lost me.  You are three years younger than I am, so we are roughly the same age.  We never had active shooter drills when we were in school.  You and I had fire and tornado drills that, if we are being honest, we didn’t take that seriously.  Teachers and students today practice drills in which we act out what we would do if a gunman were to invade our school.  The response includes seeking out the safest locations, trying to escape if possible, and if necessary confronting the shooter by throwing classroom items at him.  It’s pretty grim stuff that we did not have to deal with as students of the 70’s and 80’s.

The rest of your response seemed to be that laws already on the books need to be enforced more stringently and that we have a mental health crisis in this country.  None of your answers suggested that we might have a gun problem in our country.   As a person whose job it is to look at data, I have spent a lot of time looking at the chart below.

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This chart, which shows the number of guns per 100 people in several countries around the world and the number of gun related deaths clearly shows the United States as an outlier as it relates to guns and deaths related to guns.  I have looked at this chart over and over again trying to determine what can be observed by this data.  I believe there are only two possible conclusions to be drawn by this graph.  One, that easy access to so many guns is part of the problem as it relates to this violence, or two, that Americans are simply more prone to violence than the rest of the world.

Yet, shockingly, you won’t admit that guns are part of our national gun violence problem. Well, maybe it isn’t so shocking when we discover that you have taken over $3.1 Million in contributions from the National Rifle Association (https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2017/10/04/opinion/thoughts-prayers-nra-funding-senators.html), an organization that exists to insure that the United States undertakes no actions to limit the threats that guns present to our country.  That $3.1 million (7th most in in congress) is a pretty good assurance that you are going to do their bidding.  Iowa’s teachers and school children don’t have $3.1 million to put in your pocket to “lobby” you on what we see as some common sense solutions to America’s culture of gun violence.  So, on guns, you’re going to do what the NRA tells you to do.

That leaves us with your other response to all of this gun violence; mental health.  This is an area where you will probably find agreement with those of us who work in public schools.  Student mental health is a huge concern to teachers.  Since we all agree that this is an important issue, what can be done?  Well, frankly schools need more resources.  It begins with class sizes.  Class sizes are growing across Iowa because Iowa’s Republican legislators have underfunded Iowa’s schools for several years.  Money that could go to reducing class sizes (which would help teachers provide more differentiated support for the mental health needs of their students) instead goes to corporate tax credits which go to Iowa’s biggest businesses.  Adequate school funding could also go to more counselors dedicated to student mental health issues.  But instead Iowa’s Republican legislators have made sure that dollars that once might have gone to Iowa’s public schools now land safely in the pockets of corporate CEO’s.

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Here is what I know;  there will be more gun violence leading to more mass death totals in the coming weeks and months.  The NRA will insure that those congresspeople, whom they have so generously compensated, will not do anything to address the problems of guns in America.  Lawmakers will blame video games and mental illness for these shootings and schools will be asked to solve the problem.  We will be asked to solve the problem with no new resources and no increased support from our government because it is more important to provide tax credits to the wealthiest folks in Iowa.

As a senator who voted to confirm a billionaire Amway salesperson who had never been in a public school as Secretary of Education, it shouldn’t be hard to figure out why those of us who work in public schools are a little dubious about your commitment to public education.   At the end of the day history and common sense tells us that you won’t do anything about guns or gun violence.  Your memories of fire drills and tornado drills inform you that active shooter drills for our kindergartners is a small price to pay in order for you to collect your $3.1 million from the NRA.  Teachers and schools are serious about doing something about making our students more safe, can you say the same?  The ball is in your court.

Sincerely,

Patrick J. Kearney

 

 

Breaking Points

It is a myth that schools “close” for the summer.  It is also a myth that teachers don’t work in June and July.  Take a visit to your local school and you will see marching bands getting ready for summer parades and preparing for the fall season, you will see the weight room filled with students who are active in summer sports or preparing for next season, you will see summer classes of all types, and you will see teachers spending time together doing all kinds of professional learning.

The one thing that does slow down this time of the year is public school advocacy.  Legislatures aren’t in session, teachers are busy doing their summer learning, and important resource decisions for school districts for the coming year have now been made.  But, do you know who stays very busy all year long?  Advocates for vouchers, “school choice”, charter schools, and everyone involved in the industry of making a buck off of schools stay very busy.  Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos continues to work very hard to advocate for steering tax dollars to the charter school industry this summer (https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/education/2019/03/27/charter-school-betsy-devos-school-choice/3251111002/).

It is critical that advocates for our public schools continue speak out.  At the end of the year I noticed an increase in stories like this one about teachers reaching their breaking point with students exhibiting extreme behavior (https://whotv.com/2019/05/31/extreme-violent-student-behavior-pushing-iowa-teachers-to-breaking-point/).  There are things that can make this situation better, but they require training, manpower, and other resources that schools simply don’t have as they continue to tighten their belts year after year.

Republican legislators in Iowa have told us for several years that schools can get by with minimal increases to school budgets.  The Iowa Policy Project shows here that school aid has increased an average of 1.7% per year for the last nine years (https://www.iowapolicyproject.org/2018docs/180926-roadmap-educK12.pdf).  There is no way that schools can maintain necessary mental health services and training at that rate of spending.  While those legislators are busy telling Iowans that we can’t afford adequate increases in school funding they will have increased business tax credits almost 50% for the 10 years from 2011-2021 (https://www.iowapolicyproject.org/2018docs/180926-roadmap-educK12.pdf).  The Iowa Fiscal Partnership points out that Iowa gave away $42 million in 2018 to corporations that paid no state income tax.  That amount could have provided a 1% increase to Iowa schools for next year.

Secretary DeVos likes to talk about “choice”, so let’s talk about it.  Iowa legislators have a choice.  They can continue to line the pockets of giant corporations with tax credits or they can begin to restore adequate funding to Iowa’s schools.  That’s a really simple choice and it is really more a choice for Iowa’s voters than it is for our legislators.  Iowa’s Republican legislators have made it clear what their priorities are, now it is time for Iowans to reclaim our history as a state that values public education.

In an era when states across the country are discovering that charter schools create an environment where corruption becomes rampant (https://educationopportunitynetwork.org/charter-school-corruption-is-changing-education-policy-and-politics/), Iowa must rebuke those who would take our public tax dollars and steer them to vouchers, religious schools, and those who want to turn a profit.  Iowans must insist that our public schools are able to offer the type of mental health support that will reduce extreme student behaviors.  Iowans must also recognize that teacher shortages are a real thing and that unless we do something now, our schools will find it harder and harder to make sure qualified teachers are in front of every class (https://www.epi.org/publication/low-relative-pay-and-high-incidence-of-moonlighting-play-a-role-in-the-teacher-shortage-particularly-in-high-poverty-schools-the-third-report-in-the-perfect-storm-in-the-teacher-labor-marke/).

Secretary DeVos has a huge megaphone through which she serves as a shill for the charter school and voucher industry.  She has allies with deep pockets like the Koch Brothers (https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2018/sep/07/arizona-fight-koch-brothers-school-vouchers) who want to starve public education.   In the other corner, public schools have teachers and parents who understand how critical it is that our schools have the resources they need to provide for the ever-increasing services that they are expected to support.  Investment in public education reaches far beyond the classroom (https://mdreducation.com/2018/10/31/investing-in-hope-the-ripple-effects-of-public-education-investment/).  Can teachers and parents stand up against the likes of billionaires like Ms. DeVos and the Koch Brothers?  I don’t know.  It feels like they are winning more often than they are losing, but we can’t afford to give up.  We have to step out of our comfort zones and shift the narrative.  The narrative has to be about what our public schools need in order to serve our young people.   The “choice” Ms. DeVos talks about doesn’t have to be between underfunded public schools and a charter schools that are becoming more and more corrupt as tax dollars keep flowing into their pockets.  Student choice will increase as public schools are able to provide more options

My son is getting ready to start his senior year as an education student at Drake University.  He hasn’t chosen teaching as a profession to get rich and he didn’t choose education as some sort of political statement.  He wants to help young people learn; it’s really that simple, and yet I hope he refuses to accept the notion that Iowa’s tax dollars are better spent in corporate pockets or in the hands of those who are looking to get rich in education.  I hope my son and his generation of young teachers will feel confident to speak out and protect Iowa’s most important resource, our young people.  Until he joins the profession, it’s up to us feisty, veteran teachers to be heard and demand that Iowa do what is right for our students.  It would be a shame if Iowa teachers had to go to the extremes that teachers in Oklahoma, West Virginia, Arizona, and Kentucky have had to go to in order to be heard, but make no mistake, Iowa teachers have a breaking point and it may be closer than you think.

 

Dear Speaker Upmeyer (So you like accountability and oversight…)

Dear Speaker Upmeyer,

I want to say up front that I don’t know a lot about health care legislation. It’s not my expertise and I know that.   But, I couldn’t help notice that 425,000 Iowans are losing their current health care provider through our privatized Medicaid system (https://www.desmoinesregister.com/story/news/politics/2019/03/29/medicaid-health-care-unitedhealthcare-privatized-iowa-medicaid-system-kim-reynolds-insurance-health/3315390002/). That seems bad, but I’m certainly no expert. I have friends and family who utilize Iowa’s privatized Medicaid system and they, like those in this article, tell me that there have been cuts to services, long waits for needed medical care, as well as a lot of new red tape. It doesn’t sound like it’s going that well, but I’ll leave that up to the experts.

I do know a little bit more about Iowa’s schools. You made an interesting statement in the Des Moines Register article about the negotiations with UnitedHealthcare. You were quoted as saying, “It is unfortunate that UnitedHealthcare wanted more money for less oversight and accountability, which is unacceptable. I want to thank Gov. Reynolds for standing strong in her negotiations.” So, if I’m reading this right, you believe it is important that oversight and accountability are important when it comes to how we spend taxpayer dollars.

See, here’s the thing. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos was just in town holding a closed door meeting with lobbyists advocating that public dollars be sent to private schools and homeschooling parents (https://www.desmoinesregister.com/story/news/2019/03/15/betsy-devos-school-choice-tax-credit-homeschool-private-school-scholarships-voucher-iowa-reynolds/3175307002/). Private schools and homeschoolers have much less oversight and accountability than public schools, and yet your party is supporting legislation to promote vouchers (I know you don’t like to call them vouchers, but show me a bill that doesn’t look like a voucher and I’ll call it whatever you want) which would funnel taxpayer dollars to those schools.

I’m just curious, is your party in favor of strong oversight and high accountability or not? A Cedar Rapids Gazette article in 2015 found that more than 10,000 students were receiving tax credits to attend private schools in Iowa, but that the state wasn’t doing anything to verify that the students receiving the credits meet the criteria to receive them (https://www.thegazette.com/subject/news/education/k-12-education/little-state-accountability-for-private-school-tax-credits-20150816). Iowa taxpayers are supporting private schools to the tune of over $37 million (https://www.desmoinesregister.com/story/news/education/2018/07/17/iowa-public-money-private-school-home-schooling-2008-2018-education-school-choice-millions-funding/715596002/) with little to no oversight and little to no accountability, and yet Ms. DeVos, the Koch Brothers (through their minion Drew Klein), and willing Iowa legislators are eager to put more of our money into the pockets of private schools and homeschool parents with no plan for more oversight to protect taxpayer dollars.

I’m learning more about health care legislation so that I can say with authority what is already being said by a lot of smart people, which is that the privatization of Medicaid in Iowa has been a disaster.   For the moment, I’ll leave that up to the experts. As for Iowa’s schools, the Iowa legislature continues to underfund the needs of Iowa’s public schools. Iowa’s inability to provide funding that keeps up with the costs of educating Iowa’s young people is causing cuts throughout the state of Iowa (https://www.press-citizen.com/story/news/education/2019/03/25/iowa-city-school-board-vote-final-tight-budget-next-year/3245067002/) leading to fewer teachers, as well as reductions in services and resources.   In this environment, Iowa’s governor welcomed Betsy DeVos to a closed-door meeting to divert resources away from public schools.

Either you are a believer in holding those who receive taxpayer dollars accountable or you don’t. If you believe in accountability you will stop supporting legislation that would funnel our state resources to non-public schools who don’t have near the accountability of our public schools. If you are really for school “choice”, you will support funding public schools so that they don’t have to continue to offer fewer choices for the 93% of Iowa students who attend them. If you really believe in oversight, you will insist that the Department of Revenue makes sure that the millions of dollars in tax credits going to private schools are currently going to those who they are intended for.

You see Madame Speaker, it’s not that Iowans aren’t willing to have an honest conversation about what is best for Iowa’s schools (or health care, or our environment, or taxes, etc.) it is that we want an honest conversation. Let’s let the Koch Brothers, big insurance interests, and those who want to profit off of our tax dollars among others take a seat on the sidelines while we discuss what is best for Iowa. Let’s be for accountability and oversight for ALL of Iowa’s tax dollars, not just some of them.

Sincerely,

Pat Kearney

Dear Secretary Devos, Welcome to Iowa!

Dear Secretary DeVos,

I see that you were in my hometown yesterday.  I was excited to see that you were taking time away from stripping protections from sexual assault survivors (https://psmag.com/education/devoss-proposed-title-ix-changes-could-harm-both-due-process-and-victims-rights) and cutting funding for student loan forgiveness to those who do public service work (https://www.cnn.com/2019/03/13/politics/betsy-devos-student-loan-forgiveness-budget/index.html) to visit little old Iowa.  I was eager to come and see you speak to Iowans about the work you are doing.  But, I guess that wasn’t in the cards.  Instead it seems that you met behind closed doors with a handful of Iowans, most of whom are far-right lobbyists.  No teachers.  No students.  There are rumors that a public school administrator might have been there, but since the meeting was closed to the public and closed to the press, I guess we might never know.  I did see that Koch Brothers lackey Drew Klein was there; thank goodness that the Koch Brothers had a seat at the table.  We certainly won’t know what was discussed, but hey, thanks for coming to Iowa.

Actually, I have a pretty good guess what was discussed.  You were discussing using public dollars to fund private schools.  You were discussing legislation that would insure that affluent suburban private schools were getting more tax dollars.  I would guess that you discussed being sure that homeschool parents get a few more public funds in their pockets.  I am guessing the words choice and competition were used quite a bit in the meeting.  Those buzzwords have been used all over the country to strip money from public schools and put it in the hands of private for-profit schools and it has failed time and time again (https://www.brookings.edu/research/more-findings-about-school-vouchers-and-test-scores-and-they-are-still-negative/).  But, again, thanks for coming to Iowa and meeting with 6 or 7 people who already support the type of plan that have been so unsuccessful in your home state of Michigan (https://www.mlive.com/news/2018/05/michigan_schools_on_a_race_to.html).

If you were selling something that Iowans were interested in, wouldn’t you hold a rally?  If you were selling something that Iowans were in favor of, wouldn’t you invite the press in to talk about it?  Why hide?  Well, you know the answer as well as I do.  Iowans don’t want public dollars spent on private schools (https://www.desmoinesregister.com/story/news/education/2017/02/26/iowa-poll-majority-oppose-using-public-funds-private-school/97996574/).  No candidate ran on a voucher platform in Iowa.  You know Iowans don’t want it, so you have a closed door meeting to appease the Koch Brothers and rally some lobbyists and then you scoot out of town to do what you can to run down public education somewhere else.

The funny things is that Iowa’s public educators would really like to have a conversation with you.  We’d love to talk about how we can serve a student population that is coming to us with increasingly unique needs.  We do have achievement gaps that we would love to address, but to get at the needs of ALL of Iowa’s young people that come through our doors we need resources and that isn’t happening.  Iowa’s Republican legislators are driving us to austerity.  Budgets that don’t keep up with cost of doing business are forcing schools to cut staff and eliminate programming.  Iowa’s public schools want to talk about what is best for Iowa’s students, but we can’t get a seat at the table.  You see Secretary DeVos, we don’t see the education system as a competition.  Instead, we see each student as an opportunity to make the world a better place.

While I’ve got your attention, as someone who understands how this stuff works, can I ask you a favor?  My neighbors and I aren’t all that fond of our local public pool.  It’s really busy, understaffed, it’s starting to show it’s age a little bit, and they let absolutely anyone swim.  We were wondering if you could help us set up a tax credit so that we could build a private pool in our neighborhood.  With our private pool we could just make it available to the local kids, it would be cheaper to operate because we wouldn’t have to have safety features like chlorine or lifeguards, and we would definitely keep out any kids who couldn’t swim; those kids can use the public pool right?  So, who would we talk to about getting a tax credit for this pool?  Is there a cabinet secretary willing to come to Iowa and meet with 5 or 6 of us “Private Pool Advocates” and maybe a few of our lobbyists?  Or is that just plain crazy?

Well, thanks for coming to Iowa I guess.  Maybe next time I’ll get a chance to say hello.

Sincerely,

Patrick Kearney

Dear Don Jr.

Dear Don Jr.,

Let me introduce myself to you, my name is Pat and I’ve been a teacher for almost 30 years. I couldn’t help but catch a little bit of your speech in El Paso where you referred to me and my colleagues as “losers.” (https://www.washingtonpost.com/education/2019/02/12/donald-trump-jr-you-dont-have-be-indoctrinated-by-these-loser-teachers-that-are-trying-sell-you-socialism/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.b73060dfc5dd) I have to admit that I was inclined to be angry about your assessment of my profession, but as a teacher I recognized that your lack of understanding comes from ignorance (as it often does).

I am guessing that, much like our Secretary of Education, you have spent very little time in public schools. Not having spent much time in our schools I am guessing that you get most of your information about them from the news that you consume. Fortunately, there is a term for most of what I am guessing you read about public schools, the term is…it’s right on the tip of my tongue…what do they call it? Oh yes, it’s called “fake news.” You have surely bought into the narrative that teachers are busy promoting our own special interests at the expense of what is good for kids. You believe that teachers unions have made it impossible for teachers to be fired, so we have no incentive to work hard. The narratives that you have chosen to believe have led to teaching becoming America’s most embattled profession. Author Dana Goldstein says this, “Today the ineffective tenured teacher has emerged as a feared character, a vampire type who sucks tax dollars into her bloated pension and health care plans, without much regard for the children under her care…the media repeats, ad nauseam, anecdotes about the most despicable examples of this type of person. …As a result, the public has gotten the message that public school teaching-especially urban teaching-is a broadly failed profession.” That’s the narrative you’ve been sold. If only it were true.

The late great Richard DuFour called this “The Phony Crisis” in his book “In Praise of American Educators.” Mr. DuFour pointed out that in recent years graduation rates have exceeded 80% for the first time in history.   According to Education Week the improved rates of graduation for Latino and African-American students exceeded the national average. The College Board has found that students are scoring at all time highs on the College Board Advanced Placement (AP) exams. Educational scholar Diane Ravitch points out that “NAEP (The National Assessment of Educational Progress) data show beyond question that test scores in reading and math have improved for almost every group of students over the past two decades. …Students know more and can do more in these two basic skills subjects now than they could twenty or forty years ago.”

The narrative that you are selling is that teachers don’t care about their students, and yet teachers spend more than $1.6 billion (about $500 per teacher) out of their own pockets to provide students with classroom supplies (Lenbach-Reyhle, 2014, Shepard, 2014). Gallup polls continually find that parents are satisfied with their local schools. Data would also tell us that students recognize that teachers care about their well-being, treat them fairly, and offer extra help when needed (The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, 2013). There’s lots of data to suggest that public schools and teachers are doing incredible work.

But, in the end, those are a lot of statistics.   What I think you, your father, and Ms. DeVos are missing is what is happening day to day in our public schools. There aren’t teachers “indoctrinating” students with any nefarious political agendas.   Instead there are teachers lifting young people up every day in so many different ways.   I have the great privilege of being in a lot of school buildings as part of my job these days and I’ll tell you a little bit about a recent day I had. I started out visiting a middle school where kids were at Jazz Band rehearsal at 6:45 am on a cold morning to get ready for an upcoming performance. They were working hard at getting better at improvisational jazz, one of our country’s most important art forms.   I then sat in on a high school Language Arts class where the students were having collaborative conversations about how their unique backgrounds influenced their perception of a classic novel. That afternoon I observed a Kindergarten class using project-based learning to make water move across a sandy surface. My day ended in a high school business class where students were developing a marketing plan for a local professional sports team. I’m in a lot of classrooms these days and I have to say that I’m not hearing a lot of socialist rhetoric. I see teachers and students working together to learn.

Here’s the thing Junior, you seem concerned that the teaching force is a bunch of socialist “losers” who are busy indoctrinating the youth of America.   It isn’t true, but even if it was, where is the army of better-qualified people willing to do this work? If you, or others who want to trash America’s teachers, really wanted to be a part of the solution, you would bring on this invisible army of great teachers who would solve the phony crisis you have articulated.   But, let’s be honest, that isn’t happening.   Highly qualified, hard-working, very smart people are going to continue to open our classrooms to ALL kids.   We are going to drive our 2003 Windstar vans to work each day and do what’s best for kids. We will take a group of learners with increasingly unique needs and we will help them grow.   We will make mistakes, we will get frustrated at times, and we will persevere as we face larger class sizes and diminishing resources.   While you and Ms. DeVos are busy polishing the silver spoons you were born with, we’ll keep working. Just know that our days as your punching bags are over.   We’re going to change the world by changing the narrative you are selling one student at a time.

Sincerely,

Patrick J. Kearney