Throwback Thursday: When Greg Forristall fought against putting commerce ahead of education

Republican State Representative Greg Forristall passed away yesterday at the age of 67. First elected to the Iowa House in 2006, he was most recently vice chair of the Education Committee and also served on the Human Resources, Labor, and Ways and Means committees. He had been battling cancer for some time and was too ill to participate in the last few weeks of this year’s legislative session.

In a written statement, Republican Party of Iowa chair Jeff Kaufmann described Forristall as a “friend to conservatives across our state” and a “happy warrior” in the Ronald Reagan tradition. House Speaker Linda Upmeyer said Forristall “was a dedicated public servant to the people he represented and an advocate for the arts and education, two issues that he was incredibly passionate for.”

I never met Forristall, but one episode stands out for me as I think about his legislative career. The first two years after Republicans regained their Iowa House majority, Forristall chaired the Education Committee. House leaders reassigned him to lead the Labor Committee in 2013, a position he retained through the 2016 legislative session.

Why did then House Speaker Kraig Paulsen and Majority Leader Upmeyer take the Education Committee away from Forristall, knowing how much he cared about that issue? I never saw any public confirmation, but the Iowa political rumor mill pointed to Forristall’s stance on one controversial bill.

For many years, nearly every Iowa K-12 school district requested and received permission from the Department of Education to start the academic year before the week including September 1. Over time, as more school districts moved their start dates to mid-August, representatives for the tourism industry lobbied for enforcing the Iowa Code’s nominal requirement for a long summer break.

Economist Dave Swenson exposed the “phony argument” pitting schools against business, noting “there is no evidence that early start dates interfere in any meaningful sense with the Iowa State Fair or with any other tourism activity in Iowa.” In contrast, a large body of evidence points to long summer breaks as harmful for student learning.

Nevertheless, the industry lobbyists found an ally in Governor Terry “Best Schools in the Nation” Branstad, and Paulsen came around to supporting new restrictions on local authorities.

Forristall drew a line in the sand. From O.Kay Henderson’s March 30, 2012 report for Radio Iowa:

“When I initially showed up in the legislature, I didn’t see necessarily why the legislature should get into that. At this point, I sort of do, especially as we look for more opportunities for school districts to work together,” Paulsen says. “I will tell you it has the most support in the House that I’ve ever seen in the 10 years I’ve been there.”

But another Republican — Representative Greg Forristall of Macedonia — vows to do what he can to kill the bill.

“I’m chair of the House Education Committee and we’ve fought this for six years now and no self-respecting chair of education is going to put commerce in front of the education needs of children,” Foristall says. “I think this bill is an embarassment.”

State Representative Peter Cownie, who never met a business lobbyist he wouldn’t carry water for, had introduced a school calendar bill earlier in the year, but it died in Forristall’s committee.

Later, House Republicans ran a different school start date bill through the Ways and Means Committee, which is exempt from the legislature’s “funnel” deadlines for non-appropriations bills. It passed the House by 56 votes to 44, with some Democrats supporting it and Forristall among nineteen Republicans who voted no. The Democratic-controlled Iowa Senate never took it up.

Forristall paid a price: Ron Jorgensen replaced him as House Education Committee chair in January 2013. Forristall wasn’t completely frozen out; he took over the Labor Committee. But his colleagues didn’t remember him today for being “incredibly passionate” about labor policy.

Meanwhile, the battle over school start dates shifted to the executive branch. The Iowa Department of Education had named a task force to consider the issue in the summer of 2012. The following year, the department drafted an administrative rule to change waiver policy. In a surprise move, the State Board of Education rejected the department’s proposed rule, swayed by educators’ arguments that local leaders need “flexibility in their calendars to promote student achievement.”

Branstad forced the issue by instructing his Department of Education director in December 2014 to stop giving out automatic waivers to districts seeking to start classes before the week including September 1. The governor said the department should allow exceptions only if a school district could demonstrate a “significantly negative educational impact.”

With state officials poised to deny most waiver requests for the 2015/2016 academic year, Senate Democrats approved a bill designed to protect local education authorities’ ability to set their own calendars. As the legislation moved through the Iowa House, Republicans amended it to take the start date decision away from school districts. Forristall was involved with negotiations between lawmakers and the governor’s staff, which settled on August 23 as the new firm limit. That date ensured K-12 classes would never begin before the Iowa State Fair had ended.

Radio Iowa’s Henderson reported on the March 24, 2015 House floor debate.

“Since the first day of the session we have been working on the issue of the school start date,” Representative Greg Forristall, a Republican from Macadonia, said. “We’ve had discussions over the last couple of months with the senate, with members of the various house, with the governor’s office and I believe we have finally reached an acceptable compromise.” […]

“Sometimes you have to take what you can get,” Forristall said. “…This is one of those cases.”

The revised bill easily passed the Iowa House and cleared the upper chamber with two votes to spare. It was a rare example of Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal bringing legislation to the floor with much more support from Republicans (21 yes votes) than from Democrats (seven yes votes). Branstad signed the measure.

Forristall didn’t stick his neck out often, as far as I was aware, but he knew long summer breaks aren’t best for student learning. He cared enough to stand up to powerful members of his own party against putting “commerce in front of the education needs of children.”

My he rest in peace.

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