Bruce Lear lives in Sioux City and has been connected to Iowa’s 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. He can be reached at BruceLear2419@gmail.com
In 7th grade, I tried to build a shadowbox. I had plans, but I lacked skill. After struggling for weeks, the deadline loomed, and my shadow box was a shadow of what it was supposed to be.
I turned it in. My shop teacher frowned, sized it up and said, “Work on it a little more.” I did.
After a week of measuring, sawing in the wrong places, and hammering my fingers more than once, I tuned it in again.
This time the frown was a silent grimace. In true shop teacher bluntness, he said, “It’s still really bad.” Then remembering he was supposed to encourage, he said, “You’ll get it next time.”
Deciding between the original bill and the new version is like choosing if you want your house destroyed by a tornado or a hurricane. Either way, you lose.
The new version of SSB 3073 would send state special education funds directly to local school districts, which could purchase those services from the Area Education Agency or from a private for-profit company. Currently the school district receives the money, and it flows through to the AEA. The AEA system would also provide other services if the school districts chose to purchase those services.
The bill keeps in place a tax levy used to pay for educational services, but eliminates a $33 million levy used for media services. The governance of the AEAs would shift from a board elected by local school districts to the Iowa Department of Education. This obliterates local control and centralizes decision making. It’s one size fits all, which in the past Iowa always rejected.
The bill does still contain the governor’s proposed teacher pay increases: $50,000 as a minimum starting salary and $62,000 as a minimum for a teacher with twelve years of experience.
First, like my long-ago shadowbox, no one needs what Reynolds is making. It’s a solution in search of a problem. But this isn’t some silly solution like forcing kids to sing the Star-Spangled Banner every day. This new law has lasting consequences for some of our most vulnerable kids needing special education. They deserve the best services possible, and this change isn’t it.
Second, those few school districts that see a big pot of special ed money gleaming better be careful what they’re wishing for. The federal special education laws aren’t changing, and districts still need to comply with all the laws. That requires lots of work.
Also, the amount of paperwork for that pot of gold won’t be minimal and will have thick strings attached. A small district will be swamped, and kids will suffer. A large district will have to increase special education administration to ensure compliance and won’t be able to buy the same level of service.
Third, a district has no idea what the special education count will be. That means administrators will be operating in the dark about how much they will need to purchase from the AEA or private vendor. The money provided may not meet the needs of all the students needing special education services. Since special education is mandatory, districts will need to tap into the general education budget, tap reserves or raise property taxes.
The AEAs were created so those services could be provided regionally. The idea was, school districts wouldn’t have to hire professionals like speech and language pathologists, social workers, and psychologists. AEAs can fund these positions regionally because the school district flow through money creates enough of a budget. That won’t be the case for individual districts.
Finally, I’m not aware of many private companies providing special education services. This may become a growth industry in urban and suburban areas. Rural Iowa schools will be left out of this choice, because private companies will go where the money is. That’s not Iowa small schools.
Part of the governor’s bill also provides salary increases for teachers. That’s long overdue, but how it’s done matters. The plan must be sustainable. It would be a tragedy to provide the salary and then find the funding was not sustainable. The Iowa legislature has a history of doing just that. That would make our state’s current teacher shortage look like an overflowing surplus.
Providing $50,000 for a minimum salary for one year and then taking it away will cause teachers to run for the exits. But there are other questions. Will first year teachers without experience earn more than a 10-year veteran? What happens if a teacher earns more than $62,000 now? Will graduate hours and degrees be rewarded?
As I’ve written before, the best way to distribute a teacher salary increase is to use the salary schedule. The salary schedule rewards additional graduate hours and degrees while recognizing years of service. Raises for teachers need to be across the board so Iowa can attract and retain educators.
The other part of the education family that needs attention is the salaries of professional support staff. The governor’s bill is silent on that, and this is a real problem needing a real solution.
So, parents, educators and community leaders need to channel my shop teacher and tell Reynolds and the Iowa legislature to try again. Or maybe leave the AEAs alone and concentrate on real problems facing Iowa’s public schools.