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How the Iowa state legislature cut school funding, endangered teacher benefits and continues to threaten the future of Iowa public schools.
April 7, 2017
Earlier this year, the Iowa state legislature voted to allow funding for schools to grow by 1.1 percent for the 2017-2018 school year. But the word “growth” is misleading; just because it’s growth doesn’t mean it’s enough. The amount of allowable growth is supposed to keep schools afloat in case of inflation and provide growing districts with enough money to hold more students. A rate of 1.1 percent is not enough to keep up with inflation, which the Federal Reserve likes to keep around two percent.
At 1.1 percent allowable growth, funding is at its lowest point since the 2011-2012 school year. Since then, the growth rates have been better, but programs such as fourth grade orchestra, seventh grade football and other elective courses were cut. Lowering the rate to 1.1 percent could mean many more cuts not just in Iowa City, but statewide.
Joshua Brown is Iowa’s representative on the National Education Association Board of Directors and teaches eighth grade in Des Moines. According to Brown, most of a school district’s budget goes to staff, maintenance and bus drivers. Because buses and maintenance are considered mandatory, teachers and their classes are the first to go.
“The first [classes] cut are normally those that are not required in elementary school and elective courses at the high school level,” Brown said. “At my middle school, we have cut both of our foreign language teachers, one of our PE teachers will be replaced with an associate, and we cut our librarian.”
So what–or who–will be cut? The short answer is: it depends.
“What a school will cut first will be heavily influenced [by] what they have already cut in previous years, as the budget and school funding has not kept up with inflation for several years now,” Brown said.
One of the biggest fears among teachers is that Iowa will follow suit of many other Midwestern states and cut large amounts of school funding. In 2011, the state of Wisconsin, under Governor Scott Walker, passed a bill to address a projected deficit that affected the salary and benefits of public employees. Kansas also passed a less drastic version of the same bill.
“We had kind of heard rumblings about it for a few months at least, and looking at what happened in… Kansas and Wisconsin and whatnot,” said English teacher Nate Frese. “That’s the prevailing fear. ‘Are we going to be like Wisconsin’ or ‘Are we going to be like Kansas.’”
Although Iowa is decidedly not Kansas, that doesn’t mean the same things won’t happen; the budget is still in peril.
The General Fund accounts for 64.4 percent of the district’s budget, and over half of the money for the General Fund comes from the state. General Fund money goes to what the district describes as “providing education.” Seventeen percent of that budget covers “textbooks, supplies, materials, equipment, utilities, maintenance, transportation and repairs.”
For West, Shoultz breaks this down into two major issues: class size and course availability.
“Some of the things that we were hoping to do when we go to two high schools are going to be harder for us, and probably the [effect] is higher class sizes and the possibility we won’t be able to run some sections that we would have run if we were still just one high school,” he said. “This could be felt both at West and at Liberty.”
Though it’s unlikely courses will be cut immediately, availability and scheduling could still be an issue.
“We are looking at the possibility of running some sections every other year, [especially] with AP classes,” Shoultz said. “If you can’t get an AP [Statistics] class one year, we may alternate it and ask you to plan ahead.”
Growing class sizes are almost more of a threat than scheduling problems.
“If you’re sitting in a room cramped with 35 other students versus 25 other students, that’s a huge difference,” Frese said. “Maybe you don’t get to speak up as much in class. Maybe there isn’t as much time spent on the work that you hand in.”
In addition, Frese suggested that the stress on teachers could have a negative impact on how they teach, and would therefore compromise the education they’re trying to provide.
“I don’t think any teacher that I know is going to take it out on the students, but they might lose some of their verve and some of their zeal, because maybe they feel underappreciated,” he said.
As bad as the situation might seem for students trying to get an education, teachers are more likely to feel the sting of the legislation.
“Chapter 20 of Iowa Law sets out how public employees have certain rights and responsibilities for being public employees,” Shoultz said.
The gist of Chapter 20 is simple: public employees, such as teachers, police and firefighters, cannot strike. In return, they were awarded lots of protections and a fair process for negotiating wages, conditions and benefits. For years, Chapter 20 was a safeguard against teachers losing salaries, prep hours and health insurance.
Collective bargaining is now restricted to negotiating base wages.
“After being in this district in 18 years, it’s something that I took for granted,” Frese said. “It’s only when it was gone that I realized how lucky I was, as a professional. That part initially was jarring and unsettling. There’s nothing I can do about that; what’s done is done. I knew we had it good here, [but] it’s different when you’re hit with the reality of, ‘Oh, that’s going away,’ or ‘These things are now in peril.’”
The ICCSD is currently considered a very good school district in which to work, because the district offers the two highest paying teaching jobs in the state. But after the update to collective bargaining, the allure of working in Iowa City may decrease along with salary.
ICCSD school board member LaTasha DeLoach is worried that teachers morale will be “devastated” and that the legislation will drive good teachers from the state.
“At one point, Iowa was known for being number one in education, and we continue to lose amazing talent when we have laws passed that make it difficult for teachers to live and work in Iowa,” she said.
Minnesota has recently started trying to hire Iowa teachers, and with lower salaries at home, more teachers are likely to move north. With more young and talented teachers deciding not to take jobs in states where the unions aren’t as strong, the quality of education could drop substantially.
“You get so desperate you have to choose somebody to be a body, rather than getting to choose from ten of the best and you can pick the cream of the crop,” Frese said.
Another blow to the quality of education in Iowa could be changes to the actual school system.
“We have seen a movement trying to push radical changes to public education,” Shoultz said.
Among these radical changes are an end to the requirement to go to public school, offer different homeschool and online options and using a voucher system to send students to private school on public money.
“It could really undermine our ability to provide for all students,” Shoultz said. “I’m very concerned about the pressures we’re going to have right now. It looks like we spared the worst for one year, because of really good planning. But after that, we’re going to be looking at fewer options for students and higher class sizes.”
Regardless of the bleak outlook, Frese doesn’t condone violating Chapter 20 and striking or protesting. However, that still leaves plenty of ways to resist the changes.
“I can’t envision me deciding not to show up to work because I have 34 in a section of AP,” he said. “That’s unrealistic; that’s not fulfilling my responsibility as an educator. There could be strikes, [but] I’m not advocating for that, because it could just create more animosity. I think that staying in the fore of lawmakers’ minds by having real examples, even if that’s visual. Like, ‘Here are my 40 students, packed into this room, and this is a result of the budget constraints.’ Or show up at the state house and go to forums. Be ready to ask questions, write letters to representatives.”
Frese also has faith in the school district to do the right thing, regardless of any legal specifics.
“This district has the right mentality as far as good faith bargaining,” he said. “They do value the union, they do value the teachers. I have faith and confidence that the people that are in charge in the Iowa City School District have our students’ best interests at heart. And if that in some way means helping teachers beyond what the state mandate allows, I think that’s what they’re going to do.”
When it comes to the district’s moves, nothing can be predicted, though a lot rides on whether those currently in office stay in office.
“Unfortunately there is no crystal ball,” DeLoach said. “All I can say is [that] elections matter.”
The next state level elections take place in 2018, and there is plenty of time before then for the legislature to be persuaded to change their plans. In that spirit, Frese advocates for keeping lawmakers aware of the issue.
“We can’t let it recede and just accept it,” he said. “Keep working on that nerve and stay in the consciousness. It’s a consistent sort of prevalence and making sure that people don’t forget or start to assume that this is the way it should be.”