When TLC isn't Tender Loving Care

Bruce Lear explains the problems with a teacher development program that has consumed a substantial share of new state funding for public education in recent years. -promoted by desmoinesdem

Since when does TLC not stand for Tender Loving Care? Since 2013, TLC has come to mean something totally different to Iowa educators.

During the second coming of the Terry Branstad administration, a new teacher funding program called Teacher Leader Compensation (TLC) began. While all of the major education groups in 2013 welcomed the new money, everyone forgot what it could do to overall school funding for the future. Like the un-forecasted snow storm, TLC has caused major unpredicted and unintended damage to Iowa schools.

In 2013, the legislature added $214 million in funding for public schools, but there were some major strings--more like chains--attached. School districts could not use this money to reduce class size, buy textbooks, pay all teachers, buy buses, or fix the roofs. No, this money was specifically earmarked to pay for “Academic Coaches,” to improve student achievement. Since no one is against increased student achievement, it all sounded wonderful. But wait.

Those chains were pretty heavy. Academic coaches could not directly instruct students or even co-teach. In some districts some of the most qualified teachers were taken away from the classroom full-time. They were specifically restricted to improving instruction through mentoring and modeling for teacher colleagues. They are not administrators, but they are also not allowed to teach directly in a classroom. Some districts did a good job carving out a niche; many did not. Simply put, in those districts, they became neither “fish nor fowl.”

The TLC law would become fully implemented in 2016, so districts could decide when they applied during the first two years of the law. In order to apply, a district would need to establish a committee to develop a plan on how to spend the money allocated to each district on a per pupil basis by the state.

For example, the Sioux City Community School District would stand to gain an additional $4 million if its plan was accepted by the state. Mouths began to water, and eyes got really big at the possibility of an additional $4 million pouring in. In fact, both the school district and the Education Association (teachers' union) craved the money. After all, who is going to say no to that much money? The association could count the additional members it would harvest and the district always needed more teachers for duties and activities. It was a win-win.

Here is my personal Methodist Mea Culpa. As the Director of the Sioux City Education Association, I helped sell the idea of the TLC plan because I believed, and still do, the program could help improve student achievement. I also saw the possibility of gaining 40 new association members. I knew the money could be better spent putting it into state supplemental aid, but that was not going to happen. The $214 million would go somewhere else instead of toward public schools. I did not realize TLC would be used to limit overall school funding.

Since I’ve made a confession, let me now make a disclaimer. The teachers who are serving as academic coaches are some of the best and the brightest the profession has to offer. They work hard and are dedicated to improving student achievement. My criticism of TLC is not directed at the teachers who are coaches, but rather about the structure of the program and how it has been abused by Republican lawmakers.

I have three major criticisms of TLC. First, the money could have been directed to all of the districts that were starving for general fund dollars through supplemental state aid. Not only could the money not be spent as local school boards saw fit, part of the education family was left out of TLC. Community colleges and area education agencies (AEAs) were not even included.

Imagine what school districts, AEAs and community colleges could have done with additional money to reduce class sizes and increase all educator salaries. If that had happened in 2013, we would not be facing a looming teacher shortage in this state. We would not be seeing the possibility of rural schools dying, and we would not be hearing teachers utter the unmentionable word in Iowa “strike.”

For me, TLC was like giving a poor family $75,000 and telling them the money could not be used for food, clothes, housing, doctor bills, heat, or gas. It must be used to buy a Porsche. A Porsche is nice. Food and housing are essential. School districts used the TLC money to hire coaches when they could have used the money to hire those same qualified professionals to teach children and reduce class sizes. Those two things have been shown to increase student achievement.

My second criticism is that TLC is used as an excuse on two fronts. Iowa Republican legislators pretend TLC money is the same as state supplemental aid, even though they know it is specifically earmarked. For them, it provides cover to reduce overall funding. When confronted, the first thing out of their mouths is, “We have held K-12 education harmless even in tough budget times and that shows our commitment to public education.” It doesn’t.

In addition, TLC in the long run may also be used as an excuse to privatize public schools, if student achievement does not dramatically increase as a result of the plan. The cynic in me can hear GOP lawmakers saying, “See, we threw money at the problem and it failed to improve it. This shows public schools can will never succeed.”

My final criticism concerns the rules of TLC. When the law passed, many districts and associations negotiated memorandums of understanding regarding how the TLC plans would work in the local school districts. Some elements were not able to be bargained, but the logistics could be discussed and implemented. That changed with the purging of Chapter 20, the collective bargaining law. Now, districts may amend plans and neglect to tell those who are governed by them about those changes. In some cases, salaries for the coaches have been unilaterally changed and even lowered with no transparency at all. That is simply not the way to improve student achievement.

What can be done? I am certainly not advocating scrapping the program, but If teachers are not empowered to be a part of the solution, they cannot empower their students to achieve. It’s time Iowans hold legislators accountable for their school funding excuses, and it’s time to let teachers have a stronger voice in how TLC money is spent. In general, teachers need to be able to teach and TLC needs to once again stand for “Tender Loving Care.”

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 the Iowa State Education Association for 27 years.

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