Republican State Representative Ann Meyer introduced a bill to address a pressing problem for Iowa schools. Randy Richardson argues we don’t need a new task force to figure out why students aren’t becoming teachers or why teachers are leaving the profession. -promoted by Laura Belin
I read with great interest House File 101, which you introduced this week. As you know, the bill calls for the creation of a Teacher Recruitment and Retention Task Force consisting of 21 people appointed by the Iowa Department of Education director. The task force will study why students aren’t entering the teaching field, why many teachers are leaving the profession, and what can be done to attract a more diverse group of teaching candidates.
A reasonable person would assume that the task force would be made up of a large number of teachers, since they would offer some key insights into the issues. Unfortunately, your bill requires the appointment of only three teachers (and one of them can come from an Area Education Agency).
While the intent of the bill is laudable, the need for a task force to determine why this is an issue is laughable.
According to the 2019 Report on the State of Educator Preparation in Iowa, 2,649 students completed a teacher preparation program at an Iowa college or university in the 2012/2013 academic year. By 2017/2018 that number had dropped by almost 26 percent to 1,965 students.
The reasons why college students aren’t entering the field and why current teachers are fleeing are simple and easy to identify. So, in an effort to save you the hassle of getting this bill through the legislature, here are three things that can be done that will keep teachers in the classroom and encourage students to seek a career in the field.
1. Adequately fund education. Despite all of the claims made by Republican lawmakers, schools are woefully underfunded. According to the experts at the Iowa Fiscal Partnership, Supplemental State Aid (SSA) is the single best indicator of school funding. SSA funds are used by districts to cover the everyday costs of operating schools. SSA has declined every year since 2010.
The State of Iowa is flush with cash right now. Between the two “rainy day” funds and a $300 million budget surplus, the state is sitting on $1 billion of taxpayer money. I’m sure not one taxpayer in the state paid their taxes and hoped the state would just sit on the money indefinitely. Iowa can afford to provide a 4 percent increase in state aide for schools for the next fiscal year and have money left over.
Some states have even decided to provide school staff with a one time bonus for working during a pandemic–but not Iowa.
2. Restore collective bargaining rights. Republican legislators rushed through a bill in 2017 that removed all meaningful collective bargaining rights from teachers and support staff. By 2018, school boards and administrators took advantage of the law to remove bargaining language from contracts that had been in existence since Iowa’s collective bargaining framework (Chapter 20) was created in 1974.
More than one-third of local education unions lost virtually all of the language in their master contracts and today can bargain only over starting salary. In addition, the new law created a tedious and unnecessary recertification process that local unions must go through each time their contract expires.
While it’s unlikely that a Republican governor and legislature would restore Chapter 20 to its original form, most teachers in the state would welcome any expansion of the current limited rights they work under. If Republicans want to keep people in the classroom, this one action would help tremendously.
3. Restore local decision making. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic most schools quit holding full-time in-person classes in March of last year. Governor Kim Reynolds then announced that each school district would be required to develop a Return to Learn plan, which would explain how the districts would respond to different levels of COVID infections.
School leaders quickly assembled teams that developed detailed plans for virtual learning and hybrid classrooms. Unfortunately the governor pulled a Lucy on the school districts’ Charlie Brown and pulled the football away at the last minute. Reynolds announced in July that a bill passed in the final days of the legislative session actually required schools to provide at least 50 percent of their learning in-person.
School districts now had to scramble to find ways to open, even though the 14-day COVID-19 positivity rate never reached the 5 percent level recommended by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. As test positivity rates ebbed and flowed, schools went virtual, returned to hybrid, or offered in-person classes. Teachers were whiplashed between preparing for classes in two to three different formats. The stress level for school employees was extraordinary. Many teachers opted to resign rather than return to work when school reopened in August.
And now things have gotten worse. In her Condition of the State address, Reynolds announced that she wants Republican lawmakers to introduce a bill giving parents the right to demand fully in-person instruction for their children. Schools were not consulted. The governor also called for additional choice (vouchers) for families and an expansion of open enrollment.
The solutions you wanted the task force to discover are relatively simple. You could just ask any teacher in your local district, and they could tell you the same thing. If you’re really concerned about the problem, let’s see if you’re willing to bring your Republican colleagues on board with simple solutions.
Randy Richardson is a former educator and retired associate executive director of the Iowa State Education Association.