Each year, the Iowa Department of Education releases its Condition of Education report. Here are 7 facts about Iowa schools from its 2016 report.
A grassroots group made up of Iowa public school parents and activists is fighting what organizers say is an onslaught from lawmakers intent on eroding the state’s public education system.
Iowans for Public Education was formed online in November 2016 after Republicans won majorities in both the Iowa House and Senate. It has since grown to more than 12,500 followers.
The group organized a Teachers Rally last February that brought thousands to the Iowa Capitol grounds to oppose changes to Iowa’s collective bargaining law. It has launched petitions and letter-writing campaigns.
“We see our role as empowering people to advocate for themselves and their communities,” said Karen Nichols, who launched the Facebook group as a place to discuss education issues with her friends.
Iowans for Public Education expects to play a bigger role at the Statehouse this session, where it will fight efforts to expand vouchers, a catch-all term members use to describe programs that provide state money to pay for private education.
On the other side of the aisle, school choice advocates are lobbying for just the opposite. They want the state to establish Education Savings Accounts and expand tuition tax credits that fund nonpublic school scholarships, among other measures.
That’s “what the GOP has done in Wisconsin, and they’re using the same model now to come after Iowa,” organizer Claire Celsi said. “They did it with collective bargaining and we’re really concerned they’re trying to do the same thing with vouchers.”
The Register asked organizers of Iowans for Public Education about their top legislative priorities this year.
Opposing school choice initiatives
Public school advocates oppose several school choice issues pushed by private school activists.
“Every student in Iowa deserves a completely free, excellent public education paid for by taxpayers,” said Celsi, a West Des Moines Democrat who ran for the Iowa House in 2016. “If parents decide to send their children to a private school, that’s their decision.”
One effort the group opposes is the creation of Education Savings Accounts, which would direct state money to accounts used by parents to pay for private school tuition or other school expenses.
“We don’t believe public money should be going to support private schools,” said Randy Richardson, an Iowans for Public Education organizer and former leader of the state teachers union. “The budget is extremely tight; public schools aren’t getting the level of funding that they deserve or need.”
They also want to stop any expansion of tax credits used to incentivize private school scholarships.
Iowa’s School Tuition Organization program was started in 2006 with a $2.5 million cap. It has since more than quadrupled to $12 million.
“It’s basically tax credits for rich people, people who are using it as a tax shelter,” Celsi said, adding that such programs “suck money out” of public schools.
More funding for public schools
Iowans for Public Education wants to see more money go to public schools. Organizers say state funding has not kept up with the cost of school operations and inflation — essentially creating an atmosphere that forces cuts.
Gov. Kim Reynolds recently proposed increasing funding to schools by $54 million next fiscal year — an increase of about 1.5 percent over the previous fiscal. Last year, legislators approved a $40 million increase.
“It’s higher than most people were expecting; we were expecting zero percent, but the average (annual increase from previous years) is a good bit higher,” Nichols said.
Years of under-funding has resulted in a “snowball effect,” with schools cutting programs or increasing class sizes to make ends meet, she said.
“We need to be asking: What choices can we afford to pay for?” Nichols said, referencing the money spent on school choice initiatives. “It’s only the public system that can make sure that a high-quality education is available to every child in the state.”
Defending public educator benefits
Public school advocates want to protect benefits for school retirees. They oppose changes that were made under the collective bargaining overhaul last session.
They’ve encouraged workers and retirees to write letters encouraging lawmakers to not change the Iowa Public Employees’ Retirement System.
“We got legislators on the record saying there won’t be any changes to IPERS,” Richardson said. “That’s one of the powers of our group.”
They’re also worried about the perception of teachers, as well as a teacher shortage in Iowa and across the nation.
“Teachers have been a whipping boy, you might say, for politicians,” said Nichols, a parent and spouse of a teacher. “They’ve been easy to beat up on in the political arena.”
Tammy Wawro, president of the Iowa State Education Association, said that the collective bargaining bill will deter future teachers from the profession.
Iowans for Public Education is in the process of applying for 501(c)4 nonprofit status that would allow the group to become more active in state and local elections.
The next “election is important,” said Richardson. “There are issues that haven’t changed yet, but they could.”
One issue that’s top of mind for organizers: Reversing collective bargaining changes made last year that diminished the power of the state’s public employee unions, including teachers unions.
School districts are required to work with unions to set base wages, but the change in law prohibits collective bargaining for things like additional pay, seniority, grievances, employment benefits, insurance and other employment policies and procedures.
“Collective bargaining is not going to change unless the Legislature flips over to Democratic control,” Celsi said.
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