Tag Archives: Terry Branstad

Things I wonder after reading Governor Terry Branstad’s recent comments on teacher leadership

Iowa state flag

Here are a few things I wonder after reading Governor Terry Branstad’s recent comments on the teacher leadership program here in Iowa… (I also left these as a comment to the article)

  1. I wonder how many Iowa educators would say that “it’s cool” and “it’s neat” to be a teacher leader as they watch over a thousand teaching positions statewide be eliminated or go unfilled due to inadequate funding because of the Governor’s recent veto.
  2. I wonder how many Iowa educators would say that they “feel respected and appreciated” right now.
  3. I wonder how many Iowa educators “see that [the Governor] is listening to them,” particularly when they contrast his July veto of school funding with his proposed rule change that would remove even more state revenue by granting additional corporate tax cuts.
  4. I wonder how many educators feel that the Governor is “rais[ing] the bar and attract[ing] people / top talent” to the profession right now.
  5. In our democratic society that’s supposed to represent the voice of the people – and given the Governor’s recent stance on school start dates (despite nearly unanimous opposition from school districts) and his funding veto – I wonder how many educators and families are grateful for his top down approach in order to (in his words) remedy the fact that “Iowa [is] stuck with our local control system.”
  6. I wonder why the Governor thought that a sit-and-get education summit would be enough to gain traction on teacher leadership.
  7. I wonder how many actual examples the Governor can provide of teacher leaders “revolutionizing what’s happening in classrooms across Iowa.”
  8. I wonder if the Governor realizes that helping “Iowa again [to] be a national leader, known for giving our students a globally competitive education” probably isn’t going to happen with reduced school district and AEA budgets, declining educator morale, and top-down leadership that fails to reflect both the voice and expertise of the front-line educators who are charged with returning Iowa to greatness.

As always, your thoughts and comments are welcome…

Image credit: Iowa flag, Chuck Thompson

Imagine that you wanted to slowly kill public education

Pine box label

Imagine that you are a policymaker who is generally anti-government, anti-union, and pro-privatization. Public schools conflict with all of those, don’t they?

So you’ve got a challenge. Citizens and communities generally like and strongly support their schools. Somehow you have to create a narrative over time that erodes citizens’ support for public schools and counters their incredible historical legacies of college and career preparation, citizenship development, cultural socialization, economic opportunity creation, and facilitation of intergenerational income mobility. 

Here are some things that you and your like-minded colleagues might try to do:

  • underfund schools so that they can’t keep up with operational costs, will struggle to meet educational mandates, and will have to reduce personnel (bonus: fewer union members!)
  • maintain claims about ‘fiscal accountability’ and future revenue concerns, even when they require ignoring strong revenue generation and projections
  • reduce existing revenue streams in order to bolster claims of fiscal hardship (bonus: less government!)
  • employ bait-and-switch funding mechanisms that supplant rather than supplement and/or disappear at the last minute
  • ignore legal requirements to timely establish school funding levels that would allow districts to adequately plan and budget
  • implement new, supplemental ‘bread and circuses’ initiatives (say, STEM or financial literacy) that distract the general public from the year-to-year erosion of base school funding
  • give as little policy attention as possible to the known educational needs of students who live in poverty or don’t speak English as their primary language (and thus struggle academically), even as those student and family populations increase markedly within the state
  • deflect the blame for your underfunding of schools by alleging schools’ inefficiency and superintendents’ mismanagement
  • frequently change state standards and assessments and/or make them more difficult so that educators and students struggle to keep up and have less chance of hitting the moving targets
  • use selective data (say, NAEP scores) to manufacture educational crises that feed your rhetoric of public school failure
  • create school grading and ranking schemes that shame struggling schools, demoralize the educators within them, and alarm parents
  • implement teacher evaluation schemes that are guaranteed to be unfair, demoralize educators, and confuse the public
  • pitch tax credits and private/religious school vouchers or ’scholarships’ (‘money that will follow students in their backpacks’) to the general public as natural recourses to the failures of public schools
  • write legislation that expands public school alternatives such as charters or homeschooling, particularly ones that can siphon funds away from public schools
  • create double-standard school and educator ‘accountability’ provisions that apply to public schools but not non-public alternatives
  • accept policy proposals, money, and political influence from seemingly anyone other than actual educators
  • affiliate with anti-public-school organizations (say, ALEC) that will feed you ‘model’ legislation proposals, connect you with successful players and tactics from other states, and provide ongoing encouragement to stay the course
  • hold yearly education summits at which educators can only listen passively to carefully-vetted speakers who feed your desired agendas
  • publicly dismiss, disparage, intimidate, or try to silence educators, parents, researchers, and others who speak out against your policies

and so on, year-after-year, all under the guises of ’transparency’ and ‘accountability’ and ‘global competitiveness.’ Heck, you might even co-opt the journalists that used to ask tough questions about your educational policymaking (by, say, hiring them).

Here in Iowa? Checkmarks on all fronts, I believe (and we’re not as bad as many other states). There’s an evolving playbook out there, folks, and we’re seeing it being implemented in every state.

More of this to come in the years ahead… Do you care? If so, what will you do about it?

Image credit: Pine box, Todd Ehlers

Dear Governor Branstad, we need both


Governor Terry Branstad, from the Des Moines Register:

“We gave all this across-the-board money with no accountability and Iowa kind of stagnated while other states put a focus on things that increase their standards that improve their student achievement.” [Governor Branstad] has defended his veto of $55.7 million in one-time funds by saying the solution to improving student performance is not to simply throw money at the problem. He doubled down on that Monday, saying he prefers the state make more targeted investments in high-priority education programs rather than making a blanket allocation of dollars.

This is like telling a poor, unemployed person:

Hey, I know you’re barely getting by and don’t have enough money to live or eat but you’ve been living and eating for years with no appreciable improvement in your life situation. What you really need is some job training. So we’re going to cut back even further on your food and housing assistance in favor of some targeted funding for job training.

Governor Branstad is asking Iowa schools to choose between subsistence or improvement investments when, of course, they need both. Easily understood, but apparently not easily enacted.

How does losing 1,100 teaching positions make Iowa schools ‘best in America’ again? And when did basic, essential funding of schools become ’throwing money’ at them?

Image credit: ISEA

It’s not that you don’t have enough money, it’s that you don’t spend it wisely

Man with empty pockets

Like Kansas with its poor, Governor Terry Branstad wants Iowa schools to be more accountable for their spending of state dollars. Citing years of ‘across-the-board money with no accountability [while] Iowa kind of stagnated,’ he decided to teach our schools a lesson and took some of their money away so that they will learn how to operate more efficiently under austerity conditions, much like Greece and its European Union creditors. His theory of action is that by reducing school funding, Iowa ‘will become best in America again.’

It’s not that you don’t have enough money due to four historic years of inadequate education funding, it’s that you don’t spend it wisely…

I completely agree. I think we should start cutting the wasteful fat from our incredibly-bloated school budgets immediately. We’re already below the national average when it comes to per pupil funding but that is still too high. We can do better!

Let’s start with those useless administrators and their fat cat salaries. And of course those teachers that 1) hardly do anything, 2) join those damned unions, and 3) have huge salaries and summers off. Your district already is sharing a superintendent with two or three others? You’re already whole grade and/or teacher sharing? Your class sizes already are bulging at the seams? Keep trimming the fat… We can do better!

Next up: art, music… heck, any and all electives. Gone! Don’t you know how poorly Iowa is doing on NAEP reading and math scores? We need to focus, people! Along with our recess cuts, that’s more time that we can allocate toward scripted reading and math lessons and additional drill-and-kill activities. We can do better!

Let’s cut extracurriculars while we’re at it. All sports, all clubs, all leadership opportunities… Why are you angry? Have you already forgotten our quest to be ‘world class?’ Look, Asian students don’t have extracurriculars. After their school day they go to even MORE school, every afternoon, evening, and weekend. That’s whom we’re competing with these days. We can do better!

Now we’re getting closer to some real efficiency. But let’s don’t stop there! Let’s cut Social Studies. What? You think we want an active, engaged citizenry? NO!!! We want sheep who will passively believe whatever we tell them! And of course we’ll cut science classes. We have extracurricular STEM programs that will make up the difference. Plus we don’t really believe in science anyway…

Look, I know this upsets some of you. But it’s a tough road to becoming America’s best again, particularly since we have to face up to Iowa’s dire budget situation. We simply cannot be irresponsible with our taxpayers’ money. Plus we need hundreds of millions of dollars to give to companies so that they can create a dozen or so jobs. The solution to improving school outcomes is not to ‘throw money’ at schools. It’s to grade and rank them! Can we find ways to get rid of those pesky students with special needs? They’re expensive!!!!

[Or we could point the accountability arrow the other direction and hold our elected representatives ‘accountable’ for meeting the clear desires of Iowans for a strong education system and a solid future for our state. What will we choose?]

Image credit: Empty Pockets, Dan Moyle

That bonus you didn’t get at work (aka Iowa education reform in 2015)

State Flag of Iowa

Imagine that your bosses come up to you one day and say something like this…

Hey, I know that we’re a year and a half late on this but we’re trying to take care of you. It looks like the company’s profits are solid but we’re just not sure right now. At this point all we can offer is a 1.25% raise for you and your co-workers. I know that’s below inflation and you’re going to have cut back at home but that’s all we’re comfortable with given our uncertainty about the financial projections. We have to keep this company in the black. We can’t revert back to past years when we operated at a loss, particularly given our new employee compensation system in which a few high fliers get a little extra in their paycheck.

At this point you’re thinking…

Okay, this isn’t great but at least they’re being up front with me. Next year is going to be a really tough year, particularly since I’m already behind given less-than-inflation-rate raises in past years. My peers and I will try to tough it out and hope for better years ahead. [sigh]

Later you hear that the company’s profits are estimated to be 6% this year. You wonder a little bit about where that money is going but your bosses come back to you and say…

Hey, remember that 1.25% raise? We’ve got good news! We know that it’s taken us months to decide but we think we also might be able to squeeze a one-time bonus for you and your fellow employees. It won’t be much but we only have so much money. I know you’re hearing about some profit projections but they’re just estimates, not just actual numbers. Given our need to be fiscally accountable to our stakeholders, we can’t engage in deficit spending.

You’re a little more skeptical this time around but you’re grateful that some additional monies seem to be available. You’re thinking about those college tuition expenses for your kid, the increased gas tax that your state just passed, that old clunker that you’ve been driving around on your barely middle class salary, your ever-growing utility bills…

Not great news but a little better than before. I understand our need to stay out of the red, even though it’s getting harder and harder to take good care of our customers. My co-workers and I will keep on keeping on. Hopefully next year will be more positive. [ugh]

Your bosses come back to you one last time…

Fantastic news! We figured out both the 1.25% raise and the additional one-time bonus for everyone. We greatly appreciate all that you and your colleagues do for us. Your work is SO important to our success and to our customers. All we have to do is run this by the CEO for his approval. Shouldn’t be a problem.

You sit back and wait, fingers and toes crossed, week after week. The bills keep mounting and you’re waiting to decide whether to make some key spending decisions at home for next year. You’ve already been putting them off for months. The longer the CEO takes to decide, the more nervous you get. You’re still hopeful but you can’t make any firm resolutions until you hear for sure.

The 6% profit projections get confirmed so you figure that’s good news, particularly since you know that the company’s rainy day fund also is flush. But then you hear that one of the reasons that there isn’t enough money for you and your fellow employees this year is that your bosses have been giving away huge chunks of the company’s profits to folks who don’t really need it, including other companies and a billionaire businessman who is the richest man in Egypt. And your bosses plan to continue to do so for the next decade with the hope that those folks will keep investing in the company. Now you’re angry but you’re also still a wee bit hopeful…

This stinks. Those funds could have helped me and my family. And my co-workers’ families. And our customers. Instead, we’re being sold a line about fiscal austerity when profits are high. But I really need the money, so I’m not going to make too big a fuss. Hopefully the CEO will come through. [please, oh please, oh please]

Finally, the day arrives. The CEO makes a major announcement moments before everyone heads out for a long vacation weekend. Unfortunately for you and your colleagues, the company is NOT going to pay for the one-time bonuses, leaving you with measly 1.25% raises. Speaking with great conviction, he offers numerous reasons for his decision, including finger-wagging dissatisfaction with your bosses’ budget negotiations, past accounting practices, the company’s investments in other areas, the economic crisis in Greece, and avian flu, even as the profit projections for next year roll in at an additional 6%. Of course the negative impacts of the decision are borne by you, your co-workers, and your customers, not your bosses or the CEO. As you walk away, head in hands and tears of disbelief streaming down your face, you think to yourself…

I hate this. My colleagues and I are going to have to cut back at home yet again, simply because of our company’s unwillingness to invest in us and our customers. They say that they want a world class workplace but they’re not willing to pay for it. No wonder we’re 34th compared to our competitors. I love the people that we serve but I’m underpaid, underappreciated, and the people in charge don’t seem to care one whit. Maybe it’s time to take this job and shove it.

What are you thinking right now? Got a little glimpse of how Iowa schools and area education agencies felt last week after Governor Branstad’s veto?

Hey, quit your whining.

7 questions after Governor Branstad’s school funding veto

A few folks know that I was one of the three finalists to be the next Director of the Iowa Department of Education. It was an interesting process (e.g., just two 30-minute interviews is apparently all that it takes) but I did feel that I was able to present my best self. I discussed how we won’t see desired changes in student learning outcomes until we change what students experience in their schools on a day-to-day basis. I talked about how investment in deeper learning also is workforce development. I shared some big ideas about where I thought Iowa education could / should go. I highlighted my work with 130+ Iowa schools and other organizations and my strong networks across the state and planet. And so on. Ultimately they decided on the in-house candidate, former Deputy Director Ryan Wise, who is sharp, talented, and knows how both the Department and the politics work. I think Ryan was an excellent choice and wish him all the best in his new role.

One of the obligatory questions in the interview process is What will you do if you disagree with the Governor? After last week’s veto of school funding by Governor Terry Branstad, I’m really happy that I’m not the one who has to stand in front of educators over the next few months and defend that decision. I blogged in March that it was really tough to feel positive about education politics in Iowa this year and I was proven right. The Governor waited until just before the July 4 vacation weekend to make the announcement that 1) he was willing to increase school funding next year at only 1.25%, a rate that comes nowhere near inflation, and 2) he wasn’t willing to sign off on $55+ million in one-time funding that at least would have stemmed some of the losses that schools will face next year. School districts estimate that this fall they will have over 1,000 teaching positions unfilled or terminated across the state as they struggle to pay the bills. Every major newspaper and educational organization has come out in opposition to the underfunding of schools by the legislature and Governor, noting also that our policymakers were a year and a half overdue with their legal obligation to set school funding. Adding potential insult to injury, the Governor’s first press conference after his school funding veto began with a 5-minute shout-out to the tourism industry and a claim that the school start date ‘compromise’ legislation that was opposed by essentially every school district in Iowa was a ‘win-win.’

I think that there are some big questions that we have to ask as a state after the Governor’s school funding veto. Here are a few that currently are on my mind…

1. Budgets reflect policy priorities. How big a priority are our public schools?

School funding tweet 02

Belying the rhetoric about wanting ‘world class schools,’ over the past few years we have witnessed Iowa policymakers’ willingness to decrease the money allocated to our schools and universities, despite a strong state economy and full reserves. Iowa’s spending per pupil is well below the national average and the percentage of the overall state budget allocated to education is several percentage points lower than it was just a few years ago, causing the Iowa State Education Association to say, “We haven’t seen this dramatic a lack of funding ever.” This year we were willing to fund only a 1.25% increase for schools, despite net tax receipts this year that were 6% higher than last and projected 6% growth in revenue for next year. Yes, some of our districts have teacher leadership monies in addition to the 1.25% allowable growth funding. But those teacher leadership funds were supposed to supplement, not supplant, the dollars needed to keep school buildings running and only a few teachers are benefiting from them. So while education continues to be the biggest part of the state budget, it seems that all of the funding trends are negative, not positive. We are falling further behind rather than catching up. Are we only willing to fund schools’ basic operations at below inflationary rates, even when our revenues and economy are strong?

2. Are we willing to trade tax cuts for education (and other) funding?

Iowa tax cuts

Some of the monies that could go to schools instead seem to be going to tax cuts. For instance, next year our recently-passed commercial property tax cuts will remove an estimated $278 million from the state budget. Tens of millions of dollars are going to companies like Iowa Fertilizer (a subsidiary of Orascom, the CEO of which is billionaire Nassef Sawiris, the wealthiest man in Egypt), which just requested additional tax breaks despite already receiving hundreds of millions of dollars from local, state, and other sources. The Iowa legislature is talking about trying to reduce income tax revenue too. In response to schools’ requests for more funds, House Speaker Kraig Paulsen said, “This is a mathematical problem: The state only has so much money.” But we’re giving away revenue and then saying that we don’t have the funds for our schoolchildren. It seems that the tax cut monies alone would have funded increases in education and other basic services several times over. I’m not anti-business by any means and am in full support of job creation initiatives but our overall business tax levels already are below the national average. Maybe we could do less of this? Or is Iowa trying to become a low tax, low revenue, low education state like Kansas or Louisiana?

3. Do we have any other options besides trying to cover?

Iowa has the top high school graduation rate in the country. We have the third-highest average ACT score of states that test at least half of their graduates. These, personnel sharing arrangements, and other successes are a testament to the efforts of our educators, school systems, and communities to somehow make it all work. But our ability to make do with less makes it easier for Iowa policymakers to continue to starve our schools. At some point the stresses on the system will cause it to break but for now they can continue to push on the edges, knowing that our schools’ eventual failure will occur during someone else’s political cycle. I don’t know what the answer is, particularly since educators in Iowa can’t strike and don’t want to put policy interests above the day-to-day needs of their students. What options do we have besides trying to continue to cover?

4. Are our representatives actually representing our wishes?

One option we all have in our democracy, of course, is voting and participating in the political process. Although social media was a big part of this year’s school funding dialogue, slacktivism can be a fairly easy trap to fall into. Tweets and pins and blog posts and Facebook ‘likes’ are fairly easy to ignore, particularly by policymakers whom are less technology-knowledgeable. We will never know how much pressure to adequately fund schools the Iowa legislators and Governor received from parents, community members, and educators via phone calls, letters, in-person visits, etc. We do know that those requests were unsuccessful.

This year I’ve wondered about the involvement (or lack thereof) of the educators and communities represented by those policymakers who voted against more than minimal school funding. It’s difficult to believe that those families and teachers weren’t concerned about the lack of funds that would be going to their local schools and the impacts on their classrooms and educators. Regardless, their concerns (if any) weren’t powerful enough to dissuade their local representatives from the course that they took.

Battles over school funding will continue. If we like the current path that we’re on, so be it, but if we want different decision-making by those whom we elect to represent us, we must make our voices louder and our votes count. Midwest educators are doubly nice, both because of the culture of where we live and because of our profession. We trust our representatives to represent us and then ever-so-quietly express our concerns when they don’t. We rely on the small handful of statewide organizations to speak for us rather than recognizing that our own individual voices are important (other than Patrick Kearney from Johnston, how many educators were writing regularly and publicly, expressing their concerns in formats longer than 140 characters?). Roark Horn, Executive Director of the School Administrators of Iowa, reminded us this week of the difference between reacting and responding, noting that “it is natural to want to react with the anger and frustration that we feel” as classroom teachers and school leaders. Roark is correct about our tone but I will also note that educators’ current policy advocacy is not working. Politics often requires a bolder voice than we educators are accustomed to exercising. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., said, “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” At the recent ISTE conference, Pernille Ripp reminded us that we can’t stop fighting for what is right for kids. Will Iowa educators shrug their shoulders and roll over (yet again) or will they do what’s necessary to effectuate the changes that they’d like to see? Maybe it’s time to ask every educator in Iowa to pledge to vote in the next election? Will Iowans hold their representatives accountable next election year for their school funding decisions over the past few years?

5. What behavioral expectations should we have for our representatives?

It was a frustrating year on all sides of the school funding debate. But that doesn’t mean that we get a free pass on how we treat each other, even in the often rough-and-tumble, bare knuckles environment that is politics. Should we expect rooms for public hearings to actually be big enough to hold the public? Should we expect our legislators to actually listen (and maybe respond) to the concerns that we express? Should we expect better than this from our representatives? Or this? Or this?

6. What messages are we sending our young people?

Earlier this week Governor Branstad said, “The only way that we’re going to be able to keep our smaller school districts alive and successful is if we’re able to attract young families that have children.” and “Every child in Iowa [should] have the opportunity to get a quality education.” It’s hard to see how our recent educational funding decisions accomplish this as schools across the state now have to fire teachers or leave positions unfulfilled.

College graduates continue to leave our state, contributing to Iowa’s ‘brain drain’ (which was noted at least ten years ago). The Governor rightfully notes that we need to attract young families to our small towns. What messages do our disinvestments in schools send them as they consider where they want to live and raise their children?

7. What does our new Director think?

School funding tweet 01

The Director of the Iowa Department of Education is a political appointee who serves at the discretion of the Governor. But hopefully he or she also is an advocate for children and teachers and schools, not just a puppet or mouthpiece. Hopefully he or she is a fierce proponent of schools getting the resources and autonomy that they need to be successful. So with that in mind, does Ryan Wise agree with the veto? (will Mackenzie Ryan or someone else ask him on record?)

Patrick Kearney rightfully asked, “How does losing 1,000+ teaching positions make Iowa schools better?” I think that’s a good question for Ryan too…

As always, feedback and pushback are welcome. Your thoughts?