A contract with public schools

Bruce Lear: Iowa Democratic candidates at all levels need to put public schools at the center of their campaigns.

Whenever my dad saw someone doing things the hard way, he’d say, “That guy’s working with a short-handled shovel.” I know I did my share of short-handled shovel work.

My dad wasn’t being mean. He was just observing there was a better way to do the work. His long-ago quip now applies to Democrats as they try to win over voters for the midterm elections.

Let’s face it, in a state like Iowa, it’s hard to win statewide elections or even state House or Senate races without being at least competitive in towns with no stoplight, or just one blinking light at the main intersection. Even if 20-something consultants from Des Moines or Washington, DC claim to have the right message for candidates, there are no easy or quick remedies for the Democratic rural gap. It’s real, and it needs to begin closing.

I’m certainly no expert. Like the old joke says, “Experts are just drips under pressure.” But I do have some suggestions that may work for candidates messaging to Iowa voters, especially rural folks. Although a cookie-cutter approach rarely works everywhere, the key is finding what people care about in most small towns, or in a specific district.

Small towns love their public school. They understand it’s the social center of the town. Even people who don’t have kids in schools are willing to freeze for Friday night football games, or swelter for Tuesday and Friday night basketball. 

In the face of declining enrollment and dwindling funds, many small towns have made a last-gasp effort to hang on to part of their school through whole grade sharing. The larger town next door gets the high school and maybe the middle school, and the larger town sends its grade school to the smaller town so both schools survive and hopefully thrive. That’s the simplified version. There are many grade sharing iterations, all designed to keep a town’s most valuable resource open.

These type of sharing deals wouldn’t be made if towns were willing to surrender their schools to the bigger town. They’re willing to fight for their public school, because they understand small town main streets die a slow and painful death for lack of people willing to relocate to a town without a school.

With that in mind, Democratic candidates at all levels need to put public schools at the center of their campaigns. A message backed by listening and action will resonate in all areas of Iowa, because every community has an interest in a community school. 

U.S. House Republicans Newt Gingrich and Dick Armey wrote the Contract for America in 1994, releasing the plan just six weeks prior to the midterm elections. All the incumbent House members and all but two Republican Congressional candidates ran on the eight reforms listed in the contract. It was a new approach that focused the Republican message.

Democrats scoffed at the plan, calling it “The Contract on America,” but voters liked the specific promises made. We can argue the promises weren’t kept, but the tactic worked. Republicans won the majority by picking up 54 seats in the House and nine in the Senate, flipping both chambers.

Here is my attempt at a contract with public education, not only to focus the Democratic message for an election, but also to express a long-term commitment to education reform.

When Democrats are in the majority in both chambers of the legislature and a Democrat is governor, we pledge:

Real Transparency:

  • We will establish a public education panel of classroom teachers. They will advise and help draft all education proposals.
  • We will hold public hearings for Iowans on every education bill that moves out of committee, before it comes to a floor vote.
  • We will hold regular education forums in every district in Iowa.
  • We will honor Iowa’s long commitment to local control.

Laws we will enact regarding curriculum and safety:

  • With advice from our education group, we will repeal the curriculum meddling laws passed in previous sessions.
  • We will draft legislation to reinstate public sector collective bargaining in Iowa.
  • We will pass a parent/teacher partnership act.
  • In consultation with teachers, administrators, and medical professionals, we will draft legislation that keeps students, and educators safe now and if another health crisis occurs.

What we will do for school funding:

  • We will work to maintain funding at a minimum of a 5 percent State Supplemental Aid Increase.
  • We will provide for a separate teacher funding bill that is designated for all teachers.
  • We will provide a living wage for professional support staff.

What we will do to prevent bad laws:

  • We will work with the other party when possible, to make public school legislation bipartisan.
  • We will block bills that attack public schools.
  • We are committed to having educators appointed to state boards.

We will protect, and enhance all schools, but we will make rural schools a priority:

  • If a rural school needs immediate assistance to remain in the community, we will assist with emergency funding and planning with the community.
  • We believe in local control and will assist local rural school boards, if they request assistance.
  • We will address the pay gap between rural and urban/suburban school districts.
  • We will use rural public education to attract and retain people in our small towns.

Each candidate would use these five categories in all aspects of their campaigns, including TV, radio, print, and digital ads. The advertising would be tailored to the district, but the promises would be the same statewide.

A person working with a short-handled shovel earns a backache and the scorn of their employer because the work isn’t done efficiently. Democrats need to lengthen the handle, so the messaging is clear and consistent. Focusing on schools is a way to talk directly to what Iowans have always loved.

Bruce Lear lives in Sioux City. He has been connected to public schools for 38 years. He taught for eleven years and represented educators as an Iowa State Education Association Regional Director for 27 years until retiring.

Top photo of Cardinal High School in Eldon, Iowa (Wapello County) originally published on the Cardinal Community School District Facebook page.

  • The right stuff

    I really like the little stories Bruce uses to kick off his essays. And then he circles back to (in this case) the short-handled shovel. As I've said before, no matter how right, truthful, brave, clean, and reverent we are, there's not enough Ds to win an election and enact the list Bruce proposes. We know the hard right MAGA folks will not support a path out of the chaos we're in. So we have to find votes where we can find them. Like rural areas that have voted R out of habit, but got nothing for it. I like Bruce's idea of focusing of the goals, especially keeping Friday night football in every town of 2000 or more. And schools that are accountable for reading, writing, arithmetic, and a selection of courses leading to knowledge, skills, and understandings that will prepare those football players, cheerleaders, grandstanders, nerds, and other regular kids for a life after graduation. Keep the pressure on, Bruce.

  • Missing the point

    Unfortunately, these proposals strike right at heart of why Democrats in Iowa are on the brink of extinction away from cities.

    "We will establish a public education panel of classroom teachers." -- The issue we're seeing is antipathy toward teachers and lack of respect toward parents. Having an education panel composed entirely of teachers just fans those flames.

    "We will hold public hearings for Iowans on every education bill that moves out of committee" -- We've seen what school board meetings can turn into. How about adding language that ensures these will be fair and allowing of respectful public input?

    "We will hold regular education forums in every district in Iowa." -- Composed of? Structured how?

    "We will honor Iowa’s long commitment to local control." -- Again, parents would say "That means us!" What does this sentence mean?

    "With advice from our education group, we will repeal the curriculum meddling laws passed in previous sessions." -- One side's meddling is the other side's parental input. There needs to be reassuring language that no one will be left on the sidelines.

    "We will draft legislation to reinstate public sector collective bargaining in Iowa." -- Sigh. Why pour the gasoline of organized labor into an unrelated issue? The fact is, if management treated employees like human beings, there would be no need for labor unions. Why not simply talk about enforcing equity in staff/administration contracts?

    "We will pass a parent/teacher partnership act." -- Great. Spell out what that would entail, so that no one sees this is as a win-loss situation.

    "In consultation with teachers, administrators, and medical professionals, we will draft legislation that keeps students, and educators safe now and if another health crisis occurs." -- The biggest issue with resistance to COVID masking and vaccinations is that PEOPLE DON'T TRUST EXPERTS AS THEY USED TO. And this proposal leaves legislation up to . . . experts. There has to be equity buy-in, or at least the language thereof.

    "We will work to maintain funding at a minimum of a 5 percent State Supplemental Aid Increase." -- Hard to justify when everyone is doing more with less, and the fringe left is screaming "Defund the Police!" Why not call for spending smarter?

    "We will provide for a separate teacher funding bill that is designated for all teachers." -- Carve-outs don't win friends and influence people.

    "We will provide a living wage for professional support staff." -- Don't all support staff deserve a living wage? Or maybe not the custodians?

    "We will work with the other party when possible, to make public school legislation bipartisan." -- Make it more inviting, not grudging.

    "We are committed to having educators appointed to state boards." -- Again with the experts. Why not advocate for non-experts who also have skin in the game? Such as parents -- and students?

    "If a rural school needs immediate assistance to remain in the community, we will assist with emergency funding and planning with the community." -- Even if there simply aren't enough families to support the school? You're going to face accusations of throwing money away.

    "We believe in local control and will assist local rural school boards, if they request assistance." -- All this does is insinuate that local rural boards don't have what it takes to run themselves -- another elitist notion.

    "We will address the pay gap between rural and urban/suburban school districts." -- Is there in fact such a gap? Why? And if there is, who pays?

    "We will use rural public education to attract and retain people in our small towns." -- Schools themselves won't keep people; jobs will.

  • It's depressing to write this...

    ...but my first thought, after reading the proposed "contract with public schools," was to wonder whether that list would really help today's Democratic candidates in rural and small-town Iowa. I think that list would have appealed to the more purple Iowa I knew decades ago. I'm not sure it would increase Democratic votes in 2022 red counties, where voters favored Trump and put a Republican trifecta in charge.

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