A perfect Iowa storm

Retired educator Bruce Lear warns about factors driving Iowa toward a significant teacher shortage. -promoted by desmoinesdem

Iowa is in the midst of a perfect storm. It’s not a blizzard, a tornado, or a flood. This one is man-made, and unfortunately it won’t move through the state until the current batch of majority party politicians are blown away by its gale force wind.

There are really three man-made causes fueling this storm, which has the potential to cause at least two major kinds of damage.

The first cause is the strangling of public schools through underfunding. Iowa has had a long and storied past of bipartisan cooperation regarding the funding of schools. Rural politicians of both parties understood the lifeblood of the small community was when the Friday night lights blazed and the gyms heated up with the smell of popcorn and teen competition. Urban legislators knew that public schools promoted diversity and opportunity.

That all changed with the second coming of Governor Terry Branstad, and the legislative apocalypse that soon followed. This version of Branstad was not your father’s version. This one seemed to be bent on establishing a legacy through revenge on all of his previous foes.

When Branstad took office, Iowa still had a slimly divided government, but the Republicans were generally able to dominate in regard to school funding. The tightening of the noose began even before they controlled both chambers because the Democratic majority in the Senate was so small.

On other important issues, The Iowa House could rant and rave and produce bills that kept the base frothing at the mouth, and the Iowa Senate controlled by the Democrats could kill each and every one. That changed when Iowa’s version of the Red Wedding occurred in November of 2016. The Democrats were history, and as one Republican senator put it, its time to "kick the door in" and "make big changes." They did.

The first step was to finish the strangulation by underfunding and then came the gutting of collective bargaining. Those in the labor community knew that Branstad hated collective bargaining. As a young legislator in 1974, Branstad had been one of a handful who had voted against the bill. In 1992 he defied the law and refused to pay the legally arbitrated AFCSME award until the Iowa Supreme Court ordered him to comply. When he returned as governor, the die was cast and the reborn Branstad would have his revenge on public sector workers in Iowa. His party, once committed to a bipartisan labor peace, would assist in destroying Chapter 20, the foundation for that tranquility.

The third front of the perfect storm is more localized but equally man-made. This is caused by the school boards and administrators who now have an opening that some craved. They could get rid of the long, drawn out process of negotiations and the board’s opening proposal could now be its final. The pesky provisions that required boards and administrators to respect seniority could be changed in a blink of an eye. If a senior educator cost too much, they could be fired and replaced with a fresh faced, eager graduate. In other words, some boards and administrators also got revenge on their own staffs. Instead of uniting to say we aren’t going to let politicians in Des Moines determine how we behave, these boards and administrators seemed to revel in their newfound unilateral power.

But wait. Don’t storms always cause damage? This one is no exception. One of the by-products of this storm will be a significant teacher shortage. Many veteran teachers are ready to bail, looking at an uncertain professional career coupled with uncertainty regarding IPERS (the public employee pension fund). Those fresh-faced eager new teachers are starting to become scarce because what was once a secure profession has become about as secure as a cabinet appointment in the Trump administration. Iowa is headed for a shortage of teachers and no amount of storm cleanup is going to prevent it.

Another part of the damage is the reemergence of the “S word.” That’s right, “Strike.” For the first time in my 38 years in public education, teachers are openly saying the word. If the storm continues and the damage intensifies, it won’t be long before locally teachers begin to decide walking out is the only alternative. That’s when things get real in Iowa.

So, what can be done prior to the storm reaching hurricane status? Iowans need to pay attention to the alerts and the warnings. Boards and administrators need to step forward and say, “This is our school district and we want a relationship with our teachers and staff that promotes empowerment.” Educators need to get their hands dirty in politics. I know many hate it, but your future and the future of your kids is on the line. In November, we need to elect politicians who do more than talk about how they love public schools. We need politicians who will vote like it.

Let’s hope this perfect storm can be contained before those Friday night lights go out and those gyms are silent.

Bruce Lear, lives in Sioux City and recently retired after 38 years of being connected to public schools. He was a teacher for eleven years, and a regional director for 27 years for the Iowa State Education Association.

  • My Question?

    I appreciate reading your timeline of events leading to the perfect storm you speak of. Why and how was Terry (and his ALEC handlers) able get such a chokehold on Iowa politics during this period?
    You remember "defund the left"? Well, welcome to year 22 in a series. Now that academia is almost literally listing on its side, most are now beginning to wake up to the assault we've endured for two decades.
    If anything, your reading is soft-pedaled. The perfect storm you speak of is at this moment engulfing, destablizing and ultimately destroying the futures of kids across this state. (Defunded middle school classrooms, for example, are petri dishes for failure in high school.)
    Do you imagine the callousness shown by legislators to educators does not begin to fray the fabric of community cohesion? Do you not imagine the diminution of standing of educators in the community ("they're not worth collective bargaining with..." ) further drives divisions between local educators and their neighbors who are administrators?
    The bottom line is a fractured community which struggles to demonstrate even cursory acknowledgment of stakeholders' true value.
    Legislators, Teachers, adminstrators, students, parents...all seemingly drifting along on paths that, owing to your 'perfect storm', are taking them farther and farther from where they know they ought to be.
    From the perspective of the bright, motivated immigrant students in Iowa, a perfect storm consists of everything stated above (but that's only ONE element of the perfect storm.)
    The other element is praying that I don't encounter a teacher who will a) degrade or b) embarrass me while also failing to educate me (while doing A and/or B.)
    I am angry that ALEC-directed legislators have been successful at sabotaging local entities including Unions, small businesses.
    I am just as angry that state Dems failed to craft rural/urban -compatible messages to avert this madness.
    I am also directing stink-eye toward parents who allow legislators to disrupt their kids' public education without holding them accountable. Other communities do.
    So... it's a perfect storm for sure. Ultimately a child's academic success depends on factors that are familiar enough they don't need to listed here. Readers here have largely succeeded because of their adherence to these factors.
    To return to Iowa after 30 years and see what Branstad and co. have wrought brings me to tears.
    It is the social-community equivalent of finally finding that great retirement home outside of town....and then discovering a CAFO is going in across the street.
    Iowa has a long progressive history, and believe me, I see lots of students and their families both immigrants and native Iowans who are vowing to be the positive change.
    This won't last forever but if we don't take it seriously, WE won't last much longer. Thanks for your 38 years perspective. I'd like to hear more from educators and administrators on what they take away from 30-40 years in the education

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