"The most important election of a lifetime"

Bruce Lear on the stakes in this midterm: “Public education as we know it hangs in the balance,” which has never been the case before in Iowa. -promoted by desmoinesdem

In January 1976, I trudged through the Pella, Iowa snow to go to my very first presidential caucus because it was the “most important election of our lifetime.” I caucused with about eleven over-eager college students in the basement of the student union. We were a small but determined group. After all, it was a Democratic caucus in Pella, in January.

By the way, I caucused for Fred Harris, a little-known and soon-forgotten senator from Oklahoma. His only claim to fame was he drove around in a recreational vehicle and never used hotels. Instead, he stayed at supporters’ houses and in exchange, gave them a card good for one night in the White House. None were redeemed.

That’s how my involvement with the “most important election of our lifetime” began. For the next 30-plus years, every two years that phrase roared to life on radio, TV, and in countless mailings soon deposited in the circular file to be forgotten until the next most important election of our lifetime.

It got old. It got cliché–until now.

As a teacher and later as an advocate, I can safely say the stakes in this midterm election in Iowa and in our country have simply never been higher. Public education as we know it hangs in the balance, and that has never been the case here.

Oh, there have always been threats to public education. But the threats have always been on the fringes. Often, those threats took the form of the right wanting a constitutional amendment to make it harder for the state legislature to raise taxes, or great ideas like forcing teacher-led prayer into public schools, because everybody knew everyone believed the same in every place in Iowa.

On the left, there were always those who wanted to mandate feel-good courses without taking anything away, or they wanted public schools to be full-blown substitutes for social service agencies.

Those were threats, but they were mostly cooked up by a legislator who had coffee on a Saturday with a particular group and got fired up enough to have a bill drafted. Though no one took them seriously, they were great for both sides to organize around during a campaign, so you guessed it, the election would be “the most important of our lifetime.”

Deep down, both the left and the right knew these really dumb ideas wouldn’t happen because the “adult gatekeepers” would stop it. After all, Iowa was a stable state. It was different from the political mud fight in DC. We were “Iowa nice” and level headed.

So, what happened? There are many simplistic answers, ranging from unlimited money from outside groups to the Trump effect. But there is a lot of blame to go around. No doubt, the political landscape in Iowa is both meaner and more polarized than it was even fifteen years ago.

Here is why I believe this election is different from all of the other elections I’ve seen in Iowa. The stakes are high for all citizens, but for educators and for those with school-age children, the outcome of this election is critical. For educators, five issues hang in the balance.

There still is a Chapter 20, the law governing public sector bargaining in the Iowa Code, but that law is now a pale rider. It was designed to provide harmony in the public sector work place, but the changes have created an imbalance, and yes, some chaos. The Republican majority followed the playbook of Wisconsin instead of doing the “tinkering” they publicly promised once the new law had been secretly written.

Democrats have promised to restore public sector bargaining. What form that takes is yet to be seen, but in contrast, Republicans maintain, without evidence, that teachers don’t believe the changes have had major impact on their lives. They are wrong. Salaries are lagging, but more importantly, there is no longer a balanced way to solve real problems, previously done at the collective bargaining table. Unless it is fixed, educators will have no voice and therefore no ownership in public education. That is extremely dangerous.

For at least the last four years, the Republicans have choked public education through underfunding. I know what their slick brochures say, but the facts tell a different story. Their claims that our teachers rank 8th in the country is simply not true. At best, teacher pay is 28th depending on what is included in the calculation. Putting lipstick on a pig makes the pig mad and looks ridiculous when done. If the underfunding continues, rural schools are closing. That means rural towns will dry up and blow away.

IPERS, the public-sector retirement plan, is at risk if this election does not stop the Republicans from “tinkering” like they did with collective bargaining. I know Governor Kim Reynolds and many Republicans running for re-election have had a “Road to Damascus conversion,” but its not believable. As late as a few weeks ago, the governor was talking about some type of hybrid plan. Hybrids may be popular in corn country, but this hybrid won’t grow better. It will kill IPERS, one of the true incentives for signing up to be a public employee.

Vouchers are another real threat to public schools. That’s when you take public funding and give a portion to private schools. Republican lawmakers would love to keep underfunding schools and then say, “See, we knew the private sector could do it better.” There is certainly a place for private schools. Parents have a right to choose that for their children. Those parents also have an obligation to pay for that choice.

Iowa already provides public funding to private schools for transportation and Title programs. Under the Republican voucher plan, that funding would be broadly increased at a time we don’t even increase public school funding enough to cover rising costs. In essence, it’s a private school welfare plan, which will quickly become a private school entitlement. It’s strange, since we all know how much the right hates welfare and entitlements. Maybe that’s only when handouts are for the poor and old.

Finally, if the above isn’t enough to convince anyone, hovering just below the radar is the prospect of reducing teaching standards to solve the pending teacher shortage. Who would have thought demonizing teachers and cutting their compensation would cause young people not to go into the profession? That’s what’s happening.

The easy fix for some Republican legislators is to let anyone teach. It happened in other states, and it could happen in Iowa. Do we really want our children or grandchildren taught by less-trained teachers?

So in the next few days, as you suffer through the last television commercial and throw away the last campaign mailer, think about what’s at risk, and you will believe: this really might be the most important election of a lifetime.

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.

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