Governor Terry Branstad has repeatedly used his power to supersede local government decision-making, from 1990s policies to block counties from restricting large hog confinements to an executive order banning project labor agreements the very first day he was back in office in January 2011.
On Friday Iowans saw the latest example of Branstad's disregard for local officials' ability to decide what's best.
Iowa Department of Education Director Brad Buck informed public school districts that the department will no longer issue automatic waivers to districts seeking to start the academic year before the week including September 1. (Click here to read the full text of Buck's letter.) The new policy came straight from the governor, who told Buck the Department of Education should allow exceptions only if a school district could demonstrate a "significantly negative educational impact."
For decades, most Iowa school districts have sought and received waivers to allow the academic year to begin before September 1. In fact, "For the 2014-2015 school year, all but two of 338 public districts in the state obtained a waiver, according to the Iowa Association of School Boards." Why would hundreds of school board members and administrators set calendars with early start dates, with the Department of Education's approval? Although many adults have fond memories of long summer breaks, research has repeatedly shown that students lose a lot of knowledge over the summer, forcing teachers to spend a lot of time re-teaching material kids should have mastered the previous academic year. The problem particularly affects children whose parents cannot afford summer camps and other enrichment activities.
The new policy is primarily geared toward helping Iowa businesses as well as promoting attendance at the Iowa State Fair. Branstad has long supported the tourism industry's lobbying efforts to force Iowa schools to start the year later. However, the state legislature declined to act on the matter, and last year the State Board of Education voted against a Department of Education proposed rule change that would have made it more difficult for school districts to receive a waiver.
Since Buck declared the new policy effective immediately, and it's not clear how lenient his department will be in granting waivers, many school administrators are "scrambling" to revise 2015/2016 calendars already approved or near the final stages. Perhaps the Des Moines Public Schools will get a waiver for its plan to start most classes on August 26, less than a week before September 1. However, Sioux City schools are set to begin the year on August 20, and West Des Moines approved an August 12 start date for 2015/2016. School board members in Waukee, Iowa's fastest-growing district, unanimously approved an August 13 start date, citing a teachers committee recommendation based on "what they believe meets the educational needs of our students."
The governor's official spin claims to recognize local power:
Branstad's spokesman, Jimmy Centers, noted legislation passed earlier this year gives school districts and accredited nonpublic schools the option to choose between 180 days or 1,080 hours of instruction for the school year.
"So they still have the flexibility that they like to have locally, but also the students and the families have the benefits of a full summer," he said.
If research supported the "benefits of a full summer" for students, we wouldn't see 336 of 338 Iowa school districts starting classes before September 1. In any event, it's remarkable to see the governor claiming to support "flexibility" while imposing a policy that overrides hundreds of local decisions.