Education shortfalls are a manufactured crisis
Spend a little time with the 2016 GOP presidential candidates and you’ll hear their plans to loosen government’s reins and provide local leaders more flexibility. If such goals are successful, however, its doubtful Iowans existing under the Branstad administration will experience relief.
Debates about local control are as regular as general elections, and equally effective. But that hasn’t stopped all levels of politicians from sounding an alarm.
For instance, in March 1953, then-U.S. House Majority Leader Charlie Halleck, an Indiana Republican who died in 1986, spoke before a joint session of the Iowa Legislature on the risk of expansion beyond “the smallest unit of government capable of handling the job.”
“With every transfer of responsibility from Des Moines or Indianapolis to Washington, there is a corresponding transfer of authority. That should never be forgotten,” he said.
“It seems to me time we asked ourselves whether the Congress knows better than you do, here in Iowa, how you should spend money on your state programs, just as you must ask yourself whether you know better than your communities how they should conduct their local affairs. … We have got to return more government to the people — where it belongs.”
Those words could just as easily been uttered by any number of presidential hopefuls.
Days before announcing his presidential bid, former Texas Gov. Rick Perry attended an economic growth summit, touting local control.
It is time for the White House to “finally trust governors and states,” he said, recalling a meeting in Washington with Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and President Barack Obama. Jindal questioned why states couldn’t receive Medicaid as block grants. According to Perry, Obama said he did not trust the states to handle the funds in the right way.
“It’s beyond me why anyone would think a bureaucrat in D.C. knows better than your governor and your legislator,” Perry said.
U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio said he would support “revenue neutral flexible block grants” to fight poverty. Forcing all states to conform to a singular, federal vision will not result in innovative solutions, Rubio cautioned.
Many federal responsibilities, according to Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, “could be done in a way that is much more effective and efficient and definitely more accountable at the state and local level.”
His message to prospective supporters begins, “government closest to the people is the most responsive and accountable to the people.”
Existing problems, said former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, “will not be solved by grabbing power from states or slowly hollowing out our economy.”
Critiquing Common Core, Jindal said, “I have more faith in the moms than I do in any collection of bureaucrats. They think they know better than you. They think you’re not smart enough to educate your children.”
Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad’s actions don’t reflect the same. He says improving education is a top-down equation, with moneys earmarked for specific programs identified and mandated by the state.
“We want to become the best in America again,” Branstad says in defense of his position. “And I think that’s going to take specific and strategic investments in education that focus on things that really make a difference. It’s not just ‘give us the money … no accountability’ anymore.”
Despite education funding being among the most prominent and pressing, it is hardly the only place where Branstad believes he can make better decisions than locals.
A prime example, and another place where Branstad’s philosophy diverges from most 2016 candidates, is on Common Core. In 2013, Branstad signed an executive order aimed at blocking federal education standards in Iowa. Touting his decision as a local-control boost, and labeling the federal initiative as “radioactive,” Branstad later quietly backed away. Ultimately, no action was taken as a result of the executive order and the federal standards, merged into the Iowa Core three years before Branstad signed his order, remain.
Need an example not mired in national politics? Look no further than Branstad’s mandate on school start dates, or his original education blueprint that hoped to dictate everything from pay structures to hiring practices. Want an example not related to education? Check out Branstad’s rural broadband proposal, or go back to 1995 and House File 519, which stripped all zoning authority related to animal confinements from local governments.
Obviously protecting local control, unlike campaigning on it, has never been a Branstad priority.
When thinking about Branstad’s veto of the legislative compromise of $55 million in one-time funding for education, it is important to note how little pushback was received from members of his own party. The Democrats, of course, shouted loud and long and pushed for a special session. On the right, however, there were some grumbles, but nothing of true substance.
Concealed within calls for higher student achievement is another issue, one that trumps — at least temporarily — support for local control.
In March, House Republicans successfully passed a bill to alter collective bargaining for teachers and other school employees. The vote was mostly symbolic since it was not a bill the Democrat-controlled Senate would take up. By my estimation, it was also the House GOP tipping its hand as to why it so steadfastly held to 1.25 percent state supplemental aid (formerly allowable growth) when everyone knew it would put school districts in a bind.
Through a collective bargaining law that has stood for decades, teachers negotiated a state average of 3.15 percent increase. Even with such increases, however, Iowa teachers remain around the middle of the pack for compensation when looking at national averages.
It’s no secret that many republicans would like to change the rules surrounding collective bargaining. Some are interested in capping compensation increases, others would like to change what can be negotiated, still others would like to end the process completely.
In many cases, as the public confronts escalating tax bills and stagnant wages, negotiated union contracts seem a good place to start cutting. Many union members earn higher incomes than their private-sector counterparts; many have better benefit packages. Tearing down those conditions seems like an easier task than building up your own.
But even as jealousy has reared its head against unions representing bus drivers and social workers, there have been some hold outs. In short, the public generally wants well-educated, well-paid people patrolling their streets, fighting their fires and teaching their children.
But continually shortchanging Iowa school districts shifts the optics by creating an artificial crisis. Why can’t the districts balance their budgets? Teacher pay. Why did the districts agree to pay increases? Collective bargaining.
And, since property tax increases are the primary way districts can address shortfalls, more pressure is placed on parents, grandparents and other community members to pay the bill. Suddenly, taxpayers are no longer thinking about Mrs. Smith, the third grade teacher who works 10-hour days and purchases her own classroom supplies. They are thinking about a faceless union demanding more than what is affordable.
Instead of wagging our fingers and demanding answers from the local school board, we need to turn our eyes to the state’s budget surplus and full rainy day fund. We should be asking why school districts are being shortchanged and why we are being lied to about what is affordable.
Just like the 2016 candidates, we should be questioning an administration that believes it knows better than we do.
This column by Lynda Waddington originally published in The Gazette on August 16, 2015.