A legislative forum primer

The Iowa legislature's 2023 session begins on January 9.

Over the years, I’ve participated in some great Iowa legislative forums and some that left me with what the old commercial called an Excedrin headache. Most of the time, those headaches came because I didn’t prepare, and I left things unsaid or unquestioned. It’s a little like being in a debate with someone and knowing just the right thing to say, a few hours too late.

For that reason, I offer a simple guide for discussing private school vouchers at legislative forums. Although Iowa House Republicans have twice refused to pass Governor Kim Reynolds' scheme, and a statewide poll last year showed 52 percent of Iowans opposed using public money for private schools, the governor seems determined to force a yes vote. Those who oppose vouchers need to be equally determined and prepared.

I believe voucher legislation will come early in the session and will be negotiated behind closed doors, much like the 2017 bill on public sector collective bargaining. It worked once—why not again? 

That means opponents must be organized from the beginning.

It will take hard pushback to derail this voucher train. The best way to influence legislators is to meet them face to face at local forums, which are often held on weekends. The key to not having an Excedrin headache is knowing who’s in the room, understanding the format, preparing argument in advance, and asking hard questions.

Who is in the room?

It’s important to know who you’re talking to, so it's helpful to do a little research in advance. Where does your state legislator live? What does the person do when not in Des Moines? Who supported his or her election with time and money? On which committees does the legislator serve? What are their interests?

There are at least three types of legislators you may meet at forums.

First, some want to attend, give updates, and answer questions. They understand people will disagree, and they are willing to discuss those disagreements openly and honestly. This kind of person can be found in both political parties, and they are willing to reach across the aisle to get things done.

The second type simply refuses to attend forums when they know people who attend are poised to ask hard questions. They believe their entire job is in Des Moines, or Washington. DC. They are wrong.

The third type are those who come to forums to make speeches so they can run out the clock and leave before the Q&A begins. They may take a few questions, but only from their friends, and their answers are long winded and full of party talking points. They dodge and weave more than a running back looking for the end zone. Their goal is to escape without saying anything the least bit controversial or meaningful.

What’s the format?

I’ve been to a lot of forums where the moderator is more interested in hearing their own voice instead of ideas from the audience or from the legislators. If that happens, an individual or a partner in the coalition sponsoring the forum needs to make their voices heard. 

For example, if the forum is sponsored by the school board and the Education Association jointly, but a board member or superintendent tries to dominate the discussion, the union representatives need to make their voices heard too. You don't need to be obnoxious, but you might need to be persistent and assertive. Educators know how to command attention. They do it every day in the classroom. Use those skills.

To avoid this problem, the coalition partners should meet prior to the forum and establish ground rules so no one partner dominates. 

On a related note, parents and community leaders are critical in this lobbying effort if they share the coalition’s point of view. They have earned a voice and they should be heard.

Why are school vouchers a bad idea?

These bullet points are not the only reasons to reject vouchers, but are good starting points for discussion.

  • If the argument is vouchers provide choice for families, that is a myth. Since private schools don’t need to accept all students, vouchers provide choice for the private school.
  • Private schools provide a fine education, but parents make the choice. I don’t care if my neighbor joins a private golf course, but I don’t want to pay for that choice.
  • Iowa needs to recommit financial resources, so our public school system is second to none. Iowa’s number 1 ranking is a distant memory because of chronic underfunding.
  • There is no accountability if public money is given to a private school, unless that is specifically written into the law.
  • This would be a new entitlement that would never end.
  • The voucher plan would rob money from an already underfunded public school system.
  • In some rural areas, communities will become an education desert with an underfunded public system and no private system within driving distance.
  • Forty-two of Iowa’s 99 counties do not have a private school.
  • Open enrollment already provides competition among public schools.
  • Private schools do not have to accept all students. Public schools do, so the competition is not on a level playing field.
  • The voucher will not pay for the whole tuition, let alone other costs like transportation. Therefore this plan does not provide real choice for families in need.

Good questions to ask at legislative forums

  • What are your observations about Iowa public schools?
  • What are your observations about Iowa private schools?
  • Do you believe Iowa public schools are funded adequately?
  • When was the last time you were in a public school classroom, and what were your feelings about that visit?
  • Do you believe parents should determine the public-school curriculum?
  • Do you think public and private schools are competing on an even playing field? Please explain.
  • Do you favor requiring private schools to accept all applicants?
  • Do you favor requiring private schools to have fully licensed teachers?
  • Would you favor the voucher covering the full tuition that a private school could charge?
  • What should happen to the voucher, if the student receiving the voucher leaves the school?
  • What accountability will private schools have if they receive public money?
  • Would you favor mandatory audits for all private schools receiving voucher money?

It’s not enough to sit at home and shout at the TV or click “like” on Facebook. To stop the erosion in Iowa public education, we will need people attending forums to help reshape the narrative.

If parents, educators, students, and community leaders value their public school, it’s time to stand up and help decision makers understand public schools are the foundation of this state. Let’s stop that foundation from crumbling.

Bruce Lear lives in Sioux City and 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.

Editor's note from Laura Belin: Iowans who attend legislative forums are encouraged to record the audio and/or video using their phones or other devices, so any newsworthy comments from state lawmakers can be confirmed later.

Top photo of the Iowa capitol by Bruce Lear, published with permission.

  • Instruction manual for supporting public funding of public schools

    Bruce Lear has just generously laid out what supporters of public education should be doing, including questions elected leaders should be asking.

    I participated in forums during 6 terms in the legislature. A benefit is just showing up and expressing a view-especially for those Iowans who may be reticent to speak up and question at these public forums. Even thought 30 years has passed, I still recall the specific instances when residents questioned (probably more politely than today) my views on gun control, freedom of speech and LGBT issues.

  • Do not let Reynolds define the terms of the debate.

    I would expand the people participating in forums to include everyone. I fall within the group of people who believe education is about democracy, not about capitalism. That means I want schools to prepare people for participation in their communities, regardless of what job they may or may not have. Instead of measuring schools by size of classrooms, how many options are available for students who learn slower or get a college degree at the same time as a high school diploma, or by the pass rate of standardized tests, maybe we should measure success by how many graduates are registered to vote at age 20. That is not to say any one of those measurements is not valid, but we need to clarify what we mean by schools being successful before we can determine if public schools are failing. I would also like a quick summary of what public schools are required to provide that private schools do not need to provide (e.g., busing, remedial reading, civics courses). It has been too long since I was in school or had close family members in school; I do not know what the laws are any more as regards these requirements and generic statements are not satisfying. Individual parents and students need to work to ensure they achieve their goals, regardless of what a school may or may not offer; but, it is the role of everyone to decide what they want schools to be for the future of the community and the republic. Then we can discuss if public schools are failing and if private school vouchers are a solution. The current agenda is not about parental choice or bettering schools, it is about diminishing the power of opponents of Kim Reynolds.

    More specific to the post, I would note forums are only one way to reach out to legislators. If you do not have the ability to attend a forum, either due to lack of public transportation or child care, email your legislators. You can also simply call their offices and voice an opinion. Forums are good, but not the only way we need to communicate to our elected representatives. I would also offer the pointed question as an approach, particularly if you have your own opinion as to the answer and can give an example. Instead of asking what the legislator thinks of public schools, ask what measure they use to evaluate schools. Then, offer your own opinion on what makes a good school and why. Both general and specific questions are valuable, and you could even team up with a friend and each ask one of them.

  • Stopping Reynolds and Winning Elections

    This topic offers a good example of what I have urged for a long time. I stopped listening to the coverage of school funding years ago. What it boils down to for me is the Democrats saying, "Give more money to public schools," and Republicans saying, "Give less money to public schools." What that money is supposed to do and how we are to measure its success is never mentioned beyond a generic wish for children to succeed. The standard talking points may help stop legislation, given the lack of enthusiasm for school vouchers from some Republican legislators. The generic talking points will not bring in new voters or motivate others to vote for candidates running on the Democrats ticket in future years. When the new legislation is proposed, I want to know how the vouchers will be offered, e.g., first-come across the state, allocated to districts based on the number of free or reduced lunch students, an open lottery system, a lottery weighted for social/economic factors. There is also the reality that public schools serve as distribution centers for social services as much as they do for educational services. Do private schools also offer free breakfast and other social services so the lowest-income parents can afford to send their children to private schools even with a voucher? Reynolds message that she just wants choice for parents and family hits strongly with voters. We need to start poking holes in that message with specifics about when and how her claim is false.

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