Ghost of past vetoes haunts Iowa education reform negotiations

Governor Terry Branstad has invested a lot of political capital in education reform. His staff organized a large conference on the topic in 2011, featuring U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and other nationally-recognized speakers. Later that year, the governor rolled out an ambitious blueprint for education reform, which was a focus of his “Condition of the State” speeches to state lawmakers in 2012 and 2013. Branstad wants something bigger and better than the narrowly-focused education reform deal approved last spring. To encourage legislators to work harder on this issue, the governor has even held up K-12 school funding decisions that should have been made a year ago under Iowa law.

Iowa House and Senate members are now negotiating over education reform bills approved in each chamber on party lines. But Branstad’s past use of his line-item power is standing in the way of broad legislation.  

The Iowa House Republicans summarized their education reform bill in one page here (pdf). The Iowa Senate Democrats summarized changes to the bill here. The conference committee working to combine House File 215 and Senate File 423 includes five lawmakers from each chamber: State Senators Herman Quirmbach (D), Mary Jo Wilhelm (D), Tod Bowman (D), Joni Ernst (R), and Amy Sinclair (R), and State Representatives Ron Jorgensen (R), Quentin Stanerson (R), Cecil Dolecheck (R), Sharon Steckman (D), and Frank Wood (D). Many of the conference committee members are educators themselves, and I’m sure all are sincerely motivated to do something positive for Iowa schools.

For those interested in more background on each chamber’s bill, the Education in Iowa blog published detailed posts on the education reform debates in the Senate and House, including analysis of amendments approved and rejected.

Yesterday Radio Iowa’s O.Kay Henderson reported that Democrats are concerned the governor will take out parts of the final education reform compromise.

Quirmbach expressed concern that even if Democrats and Republicans in the legislature strike an agreement, Governor Branstad may use his item veto authority to reject parts of the deal.

“That makes it more difficult to negotiate a broad-based bill,” Quirmbach said.

Quirmbach and other Senate Democrats want the bill to address policy issues only, so it’s immune from item vetoes. The version House Republicans favor includes spending proposals and the governor can use his authority to item veto sections of bills that make appropriations.

House Republicans have insisted on including K-12 funding provisions for the next two fiscal years as part of the education reform package, rather than as stand-alone bills passed by the Iowa Senate.

Senators have grounds to be worried that Branstad will blow up a carefully crafted education reform compromise. In 2011, the divided legislature approved a tax bill with provisions to please both Democrats and Republicans, only to see the governor line-item veto the Democrats’ top priority. The governor’s staff hadn’t objected to the earned income tax credit increase while the bill was being negotiated, so senators felt blind-sided. At the time, Branstad cited his “desire to approach tax policy in a comprehensive and holistic manner.” But he didn’t item-veto the top Republican tax priority from the same bill.

I still think that line-item veto was one of Branstad’s biggest political mistakes, and he compounded the error by vetoing the same tax break in a different bill a few months later. In addition, Branstad used his item veto power to strike compromise language about preserving Iowa Workforce Development field offices for the 2012 fiscal year. (The Iowa Supreme Court later declared that action illegal.)

Why should Senate Democrats believe the governor will honor an education reform agreement negotiated in good faith?

P.S.- Public school districts in Iowa are supposed to approve their budgets for the coming academic year by April 15, but administrators still have no idea whether there will be any increase in state aid or “allowable growth” for K-12 school budgets for the fiscal year that begins on July 1. At least one large school district has already announced staff cuts. Instead of honoring the state law on school funding he signed himself, Branstad advises school administrators flying blind to lobby lawmakers to hurry up and finish work on education reform.

UPDATE: The Iowa Senate released this statement on April 10:

Conference Committee on Education Reform moves forward

A statement from Senator Herman Quirmbach of Ames and Rep. Sharon Steckman of Mason City, Democratic members of the Conference Committee on House File 215 (Education Reform)

“We are pleased that House Republicans have finally acknowledged that Iowa schools need a 4 percent increase in basic funding over each of the next two years. We hope they share our commitment to invest again in student achievement and bring financial stability back to school budgets.

“We are disappointed that House Republicans have drawn a line in the sand by requiring that we accept 100 percent of their questionable changes in education policy or else they won’t support increasing education funding. Their proposal actually makes education reform optional. This my-way-or-the-highway approach is not in the best interest of Iowa schoolchildren, parents or educators.

“However, we are looking forward to continue working on the Conference Committee with House Republicans on boosting education spending 4 percent each of the next two years and also passing meaningful education reform that will increase student achievement and boost teacher quality.”

SECOND UPDATE: Iowans for a Future that Doesn’t Suck compares the two bills and predicts the main features of the final education reform bill.

THIRD UPDATE: Senate Education Committee Chair Herman Quirmbach claims the Republican concession on allowable growth isn’t what it seems at first glance. The Iowa Senate released this transcript of a personal point Quirmbach delivered on the Iowa Senate floor on April 11.


Yesterday House Republicans offered a 4% increase in K-12 funding for next year if we would swallow the rest of their education reform bill whole.

There are several problems with that.

First, they are only offering an actual 2% in permanent increase for K-12 funding – in other words, actual allowable growth. The other 2% is one-time money that the Republicans will then take back the year after.  It’s bait-and-switch.

Asking local districts to pay for all ongoing expenditures with one-time money. I thought that’s something Republicans would never do. They also propose to allow the sunset of the early intervention class size reduction money, taking back about the equivalent of another 1%.

So the bottom line of the Republicans’ 4% proposal is really only 1% in increased ongoing resources for our K-12 schools.

The House bill also makes their teacher-leadership pathways model optional and then they combine that with inadequate funding which the Legislative Service Agency tells us would provide inadequate funding for implementation for 214 school districts. Far more than half of the districts in the state.

Well, when you make an option, when you make something optional, and then underfund it, how many districts do you think are actually going to adopt that reform?

I think the answer is going to be very few. And that leaves us with a situation where the Republicans are proposing to do exactly what they have said all along that they did not want to do. They are proposing to fund the schools without reforming them.

We need a real 4% allowable growth. Not a bait-and-switch. Not one-time money. And we need real reform of our schools. They want to get better; they are working at getting better. They need our help, they need our resources, and they need our support.

Thank you, Madam President.

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