2016 Iowa caucus is no rural friend

2016 Iowa caucus is no rural friend

Gazette Column
Thank goodness it’s nearly time to pitch the hay bales back in the barn. Presidential candidates — declared and exploring — have been milling about Iowa for more than a year. They’ve tucked celebrities and national figures into their suitcases, unpacking them alongside talking points in cities and towns from Rock Rapids to Keosauqua. They’ve posed on our farms, sat at our kitchen tables and strolled the midway at the fair. But, with the exception of ethanol, few bothered to discuss agriculture, much less ongoing and worsening challenges in rural communities. To be fair, school transportation budgets, child poverty, broadband access, land values, post office closures, food safety, water quality, workforce challenges and the like aren’t sexy topics. They are nuanced and difficult. Threats of carpet-bombing or promises of wall…
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Vilsack support of Branstad water quality proposal no surprise

Vilsack support of Branstad water quality proposal no surprise

Gazette Column
Tax exemptions should be on the table The urban and rural divide is alive and thriving. The response to an appearance this week by former Iowa governor and U.S. Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack at Gov. Terry Branstad’s news conference announcing a possible extension and expansion of a penny sales tax now funneled to school infrastructure proves it. Branstad’s proposal is to extend a one-cent sales tax earmarked for school infrastructure and set to expire in 2029. The plan would keep the tax in place for 20 additional years, through 2049. While schools would continue to earn proceeds from that tax to a certain cap point, about three-quarters of future growth would be funneled to conservation efforts that help reduce farm chemical runoff and, in turn, improve Iowa’s water quality. Some…
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Moving beyond projects to philosophy

Moving beyond projects to philosophy

Gazette Column
Since returning from the National Rural Assembly I’ve been reaching out to small town leaders and advocates with a question: “Why does so little of the federal grant money set aside for creative placemaking flow into Iowa?” The National Endowment for the Arts set up the Our Town grant program for creative placemaking and began issuing grants in 2011. Since that time, only two Iowa applications have been successful. Of all the money issued by the NEA for this purpose, less than 1 percent has flowed into Iowa communities. Responses to my question have been as varied as the backgrounds and experiences of the people I’ve asked. Some feel the national application process favors states on the coasts. Others lament a lack of the local partnerships required for such grants.…
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Can rural K-12 achieve the promise of NGSS?

Can rural K-12 achieve the promise of NGSS?

Gazette Column
Rural education leaders outline STEM successes, challenges IOWA CITY — Two days of meetings this week highlighted the latest national standards that will change rural K-12 education in Iowa. The Next Generation Science Standards, rolled out in 2013 and adopted by Iowa leaders this past August, are the first broad recommendations for science instruction in 20 years. Developed by a consortium of 26 states (including Iowa) and several scientist and teaching groups, they primarily switch the focus from rote memorization to hands-on learning and critical thinking. Instruction will emphasize the scientific process — analyzing data, developing models and constructing logical arguments. Advocates have touted the standards as being able to accomplish what current science instruction cannot: make students care by connecting them and lessons to their communities in very practical…
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The changing face of rural America

The changing face of rural America

Gazette Column
Young conference attendees hope to build more inclusive communities WASHINGTON, D.C. — Asked to create a mental image of the people most likely to participate in a national rural conference, few would imagine Kendall Bilbrey. And, actually, that’s the point. Bilbrey is originally from southwest Virginia, but now calls Whitesburg, Kentucky home, and serves as the coordinator of the Stay Together Appalachian Youth (STAY) Project. The organization hopes to create an environment in which young people are empowered to stay in or near their hometowns, and seeks to amplify the voices of those who currently feel marginalized. “Growing up in Appalachia, there are people constantly putting ideas on you about what you are — for instance, that everyone living in this rural region is poor,” Bilbrey told me at the…
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Offer youth another perspective of success

Offer youth another perspective of success

Gazette Column
Back roads have always been my friends, offering equal helpings of calm and clarity via a car window. I turn on two-lane highways and gravel roads in the same way an alcoholic turns to a bottle, unable or unwilling to resist the siren call of a few moments of peace and possibility. The answers I seek may lie just around the next corner or just over the rise and, even if they don’t, I’ll still have a few moments before more unanswered questions arrive. During one such binge a few weeks ago, as I passed through Maquoketa, my breath caught on rolling hills of farmland bathed in amber evening light. Unable to continue, I pulled to the shoulder to contemplate the Grant Wood reproduction etched by the setting sun. Honestly,…
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A ‘rock star’ caucus won’t serve rural America

A ‘rock star’ caucus won’t serve rural America

Gazette Column
If rumors are believed, this is the day Iowa Democrats have either been wanting or dreading: Hillary Clinton is expected to announce her entry into the 2016 presidential contest. The past few weeks have seen the official entry of Republicans Rand Paul and Ted Cruz, also to mixed emotions from the GOP faithful. Unfortunately, my concerns following the 2008 and 2012 contests are growing. I’m not convinced the new normal of Iowa caucus life as a string of mega-events, requiring tickets for entry and little time for truly critical audience participation allow for an adequate airing or thoughtful discussion on the complex issues surrounding rural communities. Campaign stops and events surged to unprecedented proportions in the 2008 contests. During his first trip into Iowa following a 2007 announcement, for instance,…
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