Bruce Lear predicts five ways the Republican-controlled legislature may impact public schools and educators this year. -promoted by Laura Belin
There’s no need for a crystal ball, Tarot cards, or tea leaves to predict some of the public education moves the Iowa legislature may likely make during the 2020 session.
But educators need to do more than hold their collective breaths until the legislature adjourns in April or May. Hope is not a strategy. Here are some thoughts on what might happen. To prevent these predictions from becoming a reality, educators will need to team up with community members and use their teacher voices to protect the profession.
Election years are when legislators consider the Iowa Public Employees’ Retirement System (IPERS). There is absolutely no reason to change, alter, or even tweak IPERS except if Republicans think they need to feed the base or reward private financial advisers for hefty contributions. Still, I predict there will be a few bills drafted to make IPERS a defined contribution ala 403B instead of defined benefit plan. My guess is we will hear IPERS treated as if it is some type of historic relic instead of a vital part of how educators are retained in Iowa.
Yes, defined benefit plans in the private sector are disappearing, but if we are going to use that as a yardstick, then educator salaries need to favorably compare to private sector professional salaries. They don’t.
More than 600,000 Iowans, who live and spend money in our communities, rely on IPERS. So, any negative move impacting IPERS, will impact Iowa economic development. So, our fight is not only for those covered under IPERS, but for the economic survival of every town in Iowa. This is a winning message for a campaign and for those lobby events deep in the heart of the Iowa winter.
I’ve bargained educator contracts for over 30 years, and each of those 30 years, I’ve heard, “You know, the farm economy is bad.” Even though revenue in Iowa is growing at 2.9 percent according to the Revenue Estimating Conference, the “Trump tax,” will be the culprit. We’ll also no doubt hear about the cost overruns in privatizing Medicaid, which was sold on the idea of saving Iowan’s millions.
Still another potential problem with funding is the Republican scheme to lower other taxes by raising the sales tax. Right now, Republican leadership hasn’t settled on what tax to lower, but if property taxes are impacted, Iowa school funding would be hurt. A move like this would rob local school boards of a method to make up supplemental aid shortfalls, and a sales tax increase would also impact poorer Iowans the most.
After a decade of underfunding, public schools need an infusion of state funds and we should not be shy about demanding it. Gone are the days when school board members and administrators tell legislators, “No matter what the amount of funding is, just let us know quickly so we can budget.” The amount matters. Schools need to have a minimum of a 4 percent increase if Iowa wants to maintain any semblance of quality.
This is the place where unfunded mandates may creep in, and it’s also where Republicans may sway vulnerable Democrats to come on board. After all, who doesn’t want safer schools? But the devil is in the details. It’s like when adult children propose to go on vacation with you, and then you find the sole source of funding is your bank account.
Educators applaud safer schools, but dividing the education funding pie another way will leave some pretty essential things starving and our schools as hungry as ever. If the majority party wants to finally get serious about this, it needs a dedicated funding stream, separate from the “supplemental state aid” (formerly known as “allowable growth”) that supports K-12 schools.
This is the area that should worry teachers the most. There’s no quick fix because it didn’t happen overnight and it won’t be fixed in one legislative session. Politicians looking for a solution will inevitably look for the silver bullet, and for many it would be to lower teaching standards. That move is right out of the Wisconsin playbook and the only question is, “How low will they go?”
Since the Republicans turned collective bargaining into “collective bargaining lite” a few years ago, school districts may also choose to pay some hard to fill teaching disciplines a bonus. Again, that idea may sound appealing. But it will destroy a lot of teamwork and goodwill that exists now.
In addition, the need for bonuses likely will change depending on the market. What will a district do when the position is no longer hard to fill? The temptation would be to lower the salary so it can be given to the next hard to fill position. That is a prescription for losing highly educated, talented teachers.
There are a number of ways to solve the teacher shortage. The first one is to follow the old adage, “A rising tide lifts all boats.” The legislature needs to raise the salaries of all teachers, not just a few. Another method would be to provide forgivable college loans for shortage areas.
Republicans can dress them up and call them “Education Saving Accounts,” or any other euphemism, but they are vouchers, which siphons public money to fund private schools. I know private schools serve a purpose, but they should be funded privately unless they are required to follow the same rules as public schools, which for many, would simply negate the reason for being private. Last session there was a push to phase vouchers in by allowing them for parents of kids entering kindergarten. My guess is that bill or something like it will be resurrected.
So educators, let’s roll up our sleeves and help ensure Iowa’s bitter winter doesn’t turn even more sour from a legislature that further harms our most precious resource, public schools.
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 Iowa State Education Association for 27 years until retirement. He can be reached at BruceLear2419@gmail.com.