Learning from the past

Former teacher Bruce Lear, a retired regional director for the Iowa State Education Association, looks at one of the major events of the 2017 legislative session for insight on what to expect from Republican lawmakers next year. -promoted by desmoinesdem

Teddy Roosevelt said, “The more you know about the past, the better prepared you are for the future.” One piece of recent history that needs to be revisited, as the next legislative session begins, is the dismantling of Chapter 20, the collective bargaining bill. Oh, I can hear it now, “Stop whining about what happened and make the best of it.” The problem with that rationale is we still don’t know the full impact of what was done to us.

So, before we examine the possible impacts, indulge me and let’s revisit the ugly beginning of the 2017 session that culminated in Governor Terry Branstad signing the bill on the cold morning of February 17.

This bill took less than two months to destroy a law that survived 43 years and was passed in a bipartisan fashion in 1974. Yes, Virginia, there was once compromise in the Iowa Legislature. The law was signed by Republican Governor Robert Ray, and it was packaged by both sides as a preventative measurer to insure there would be no organized or wildcat strikes among public employees. Previously, there had been a few walkouts and strikes by public employees that shook Iowa towns to their core. The most notable of these was in Keokuk, where teachers were actually jailed. Seeing your child’s first grade teacher behind bars because he/she wanted a voice, was unsettling for “Iowa Nice.”

During those 43 years, there were tweaks, some fairly major changes, and a lot of attempts at gutting it, but it survived. It survived for two reasons. It worked. Both the employee groups and employers grumbled about it, but the law produced a fairly level playing field. Unlike the Republican spin where they said unions and out of state arbitrators took advantage of the poor public employers, the facts are that the arbitration awards during those 43 years are approximately even in terms of win-loss. However, to be honest, it’s frankly hard to judge that because the law allowed arbitrators to split decisions. So, to insure they were chosen by the parties again, and out of simple fairness, arbitrators would split their decisions and so both sides could declare the decision as a win.

In fact, after contracts were established through bargaining in the 1980s, arbitration was relatively rare. For example, in 27 years of being an advocate for the Iowa State Education Association beginning in 1990, I did a total of four interest arbitrations.

Secondly, most Iowa legislators really deeply cared about their public schools. They knew the public school helped their town survive and they knew it was the social meeting place for their neighbors. They also knew it was not politically expedient for either party to do anything that would harm the public school. That changed.

Now, comes the 2017 Legislative session. Powerful outside forces were influencing the Republican majority, specifically ALEC and the Koch brothers, and because now there are literally no limits to the amount of money these groups can spend, they are a mighty force for whatever changes they would like to have made. Although few Republican legislators will admit it, the new Chapter 20 was really written by ALEC, and as a result the bill was a secret in the months running up to the session. Rank and file Republicans really had no idea regarding its details. That’s why legislative forums were filled with empty words from Republicans like “Don’t worry, we are not making major changes.” They had no idea what was in the bill. All they knew was it was a leadership secret and it would be rammed through quickly. GOP State Representative Jim Carlin said at one public forum in Sioux City, “We had to do it quickly, or it would never have passed.” Carlin was correct.

The Republican playbook was taken from Wisconsin. In fact, legislators skyped with Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker early in the session to discuss strategy. Eventually their spin was that this would return local control to school districts and counties because the collective bargaining settlements were bankrupting public entities. Never mind, that in the 2016 bargaining year, there were less than a handful of arbitration awards. All of those huge settlements made up by Republican legislators were voluntary and generally bargained by management attorneys, by no means a liberal group accustomed to giving away an arm full of cash and benefits.

Also, never mind that most Iowa public employers didn’t ask for these changes and in fact were pretty uneasy about their impact. For example, public school superintendents, who were forward thinking, knew this would create an immediate teacher shortage and would exacerbate the “have and have not” scenario for public schools in Iowa. This brand of spin caused almost permanent vertigo among those who bargained for a living on both the employee and the employer sides.

What can we learn from this? Coaches I’ve had in the past all would devise trick plays, and their motto was always, “If it worked once, it will work again.” The same is true for the Republican majority in the Iowa legislature during the 2018 session. What are two issues that might be in the playbook for this session? Watch for the lowering of teacher standards and a move to implement the study on IPERS, Iowa’s main pension plan for public employees.

The spin for the lowering of standards comes directly from Wisconsin. It may sound a lot like this. “We need to cut red tape and make it easier for other professions to share their expertise with our children. This will insure Iowa classrooms are filled with qualified teachers.” What it translates to is, “If I went to third grade, I must be qualified to teach third grade.” It sounds like common sense after all, why not let a PhD in computer science, teach.

The simple answer is as a teacher, you are not teaching just the content, you are teaching the child, and yes, I think high school students are children, who often need to be helped to grow into useful, productive adults. We don’t immediately lower standards for doctors when there is a shortage. The same holds true for classroom teachers. Every piece of research indicates the long-term success of students is dependent on a well-qualified teacher in each classroom. While it may be a quick fix for the teacher shortage caused by the Republican majority, it will have long term consequences for Iowa’s future, its children.

Ramming an IPERS bill through is a much heavier lift, and so it may be couched in affirming the results of a pre-determined study. The ground work will be laid this session. Why is IPERS different? Most rank and file legislators don’t understand the nuances of IPERS. They parrot what they are told. The perceived need for change is rooted in jealousy. For the majority party, public employees enjoy a better retirement than their private sector counterparts because it is guaranteed and not subject to the whims of the market. While not completely true, it provides the spin easy enough to understand and sell.

Let’s not be mired in the past, but let’s learn from it and prepare. Let’s be proactive and call Republicans out for their lack of transparency and bipartisanship. It’s no longer enough for them to assure us they really, really, love public schools. It’s time they vote that way.

Bruce Lear lives in Sioux City and recently retired after 38 years of being connected to public schools. He was a teacher for 11 years, and a regional director for 27 years for the Iowa State Education Association. He can be reached by e-mail at BruceLear2419 AT gmail.com.

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