Soon after the final votes of the Iowa legislative session were taken late last week, many legislators from both Parties took to multiple media platforms trumpeting the â€œhistoricâ€ and â€œsweepingâ€ positive reforms they had just passed.Â I would love to fully concurâ€”and if I happened to be a Democrat I certainly wouldâ€”but as a Conservative Republican I am less than impressed with some of these â€œachievementsâ€.
Of the three major compromises reached I believe, at the most, Conservatives should be â€œsomewhat satisfiedâ€ by the understandable terms reached on tax reform and health insurance coverage.Â However, I am deeply disappointed by what has passed as â€œreformâ€ in Iowaâ€™s K-12 education system.Â The following will focus on education reform and later in the week we will deal with the tax and health insurance issues.
Making Appropriate Distinctions
In general I believe House and Senate Republicans grossly misread and under-valued the strength of their handâ€”particularly in dealing with education reform.Â In all fairness, the tax reform and health insurance issues had different dynamics surrounding them and this criticism applies less in these areas.
The reason for the differing standard in my mind on the tax and health insurance issues was that in these two areas inaction would have resulted in direct negative consequences for Iowansâ€”higher taxes and un-insured citizens.Â However, when it came specifically to public education reform the status-quo would not have concretely damaged anyoneâ€”a point made more painful by the likelihood the reforms that were passed will have no positive impact.
Just to be clear, I am making a key distinction between the public education reforms and the home schooling reforms contained in the bill.Â I strongly support any action that makes it easier for homeschoolers to operate and expandâ€”and I do not necessarily begrudge them for supporting this reform as a means to achieve it.Â The real tragedy here is the sad construct in which this group has to â€œbuyâ€ these reforms by supporting increased money for an ever-expanding and shamefully ineffective education leviathan.Â The truth is the vast majority of home schooling families pay taxes to support a system which they often-wisely opt out ofâ€”and then ironically proceed to outperform while simultaneously funding.
Public Education Reform
The best way to go about exposing this bill as the completely ineffective piece of legislation I believe it to be is by asking 6 simple questions.Â Since we as taxpayers will be spending an additional $160 million dollars a year, answering these questions shouldnâ€™t be too much to askâ€”unfortunately I have a strong suspicion that even those who voted for it canâ€™t provide many answers.
1.Â How and when will we know this reform has worked?
By this I mean what specific metric or metrics can be looked at to prove this reform has or hasnâ€™t worked?Â Additionally what date on the calendar will we be able to make this assessment?Â At a minimum Republicans should of asked these questions and demandedÂ the answers be written into the bill.Â Surely this isnâ€™t too much to ask for.
2. Why didnâ€™t the 35.4% increase in K-12 education spending (an additional $650 million) that we have had since 2002 produce any positive results?
A seemingly common-sense question to ask I would say.Â It would be one thing if this reform came on the heels of us having starved the system of money for decadesâ€”but this simply isnâ€™t the case.Â What specifically did this massive increase (including 4% allowable growth every year under Gov. Culver) in spending since 2002 go to?Â Was it supposed to raise test scores?â€”I hope not because if so it clearly didnâ€™t.
3. Are we to honestly believe that every member of the Iowa House (91-0) and 80% of the Iowa Senate (40-10) looked at this legislation and all independently concluded it would deliver fantastic results?Â And further that these results would justify spending an additional $160 million a year?
I fully understand the concept of compromising, and that doing so will deliver a more bi-partisan roll callâ€”but letâ€™s be serious here.Â Anytime Ako Abdul-Samad and Tom Shaw are voting together on a major reform that spends hundreds of millions of dollars and affects every child in Iowa we have to be skeptical.Â Unless Iâ€™m missing something I see only two possible reasons for thisâ€”and neither are good.Â One is that many out of town members just wanted to go home (which I doubt), and two is that so many random offerings were made by both sides it was just palpable enough for each caucus to vote for (which I believe).Â If so, this approach will never result in a meaningful, affordable, and wise solution.
4. Why does it continue to be acceptable not to evaluate teachers, at least in part, by the actual results they achieve in a classroom over the course of a school year?Â And what kind of people refuse to stop the practice of passing 3rd graders on to the next grade when they canâ€™t even read?Â And whose interest are they honestly serving in doing so?
The answers in order are: the teachers union, disgraceful ones, and their own.Â This is where true education reform lies and the fact Republicans can only get a â€œstudy councilâ€ on teacher evaluation is absurdâ€”too mad to expound on any further.
5. How were teachers able to have such high-performance in the late 1980â€™s and mid-90â€™s and not in the 2000â€™s and beyond?
In the early 90â€™s Iowa led the nation in reading and math scoresâ€”but those days are long gone.Â Today we face disturbing realities like this oneâ€”only 3 other states in the nation (2 of which are in the Deep South) have less 8th graders enrolled in some form of advanced math by grade 8.Â Furthermore, the performance of minority students in math at this level is alarmingly low and trials other students by up to 30%.
During this debate we have heard a lot about starting teacher pay in Iowa.Â While this is an important number, lost in shuffle is the fact that the average teacher salary in Iowa has increased from $36,480 in 2001 to $49,622 in 2010.Â The teachers union will say this steep increase was due to the fact Iowa teachers were among the lowest paid in the late 90â€™s-early 2000â€™s and this in part is true.Â But then I ask: if they were among the lowest paid and salary equates to performanceâ€”how could they possibly have had Iowa kids achieving at such a high level?Â Also, the fact remains they saw a large increase in pay and responded with flat-lining and worsening performance.Â By the way, if the teacher’s union is ready to start blaming the kids or their parents for worsening test scores Iâ€™m ready to listen.
6. Why does â€œreformâ€ always mean spending more money?Â Why canâ€™t it ever be spending the same amount of money but in a smarter wayâ€”or even (gasp) spending less?
Maybe someday we will try it…I bet it would be just as effective if not more so.
Though controlling only the Senate and not having the House or the Governorâ€™s officeâ€”Democrats got well over half of what they were after with this bill and have to be privately ecstatic.Â They managed to get additional money both for 1st year and veteran teachers, 4% allowable growth this year and next, and have again avoided being evaluated on their actual results.Â Republicans should and couldÂ have done much betterâ€”and if they couldnâ€™t they should have done nothing.
And the final insultâ€”I canâ€™t be the only one who sees the irony that we apparently have to create â€œcareer pathwaysâ€ with increased pay for our not-so-good teachers to be taught by other teachers how to teach betterâ€¦and this is after the not-so-good teacher already graduated from a college that apparently did a not-so-good job teaching them how to teach in the first place.Â A sign of the times I guess…
The year was 2010.Â In Iowa, like in the rest of the Country, a reaction to the obscene growth in size and spending at all levels of government boiled into a loud and visible public movement.Â The internet was a buzz, local Tea Party chapters were springing up, and the Iowa Capitol was the site of several well attended rallies expressing the sentiment of less government and lower taxes.Â Two years later, it is time to ask the questionâ€”what results have come of this?
The short answer at the state level here in Iowa isâ€”not too much so far.
Most will argue that more patience is requiredâ€”and they are right.Â Many will cite a variety of reasons that explain the lack of great actionâ€”some valid points to be sure.Â Meanwhile, the more optimistic in the movement will point to some victoriesâ€”and I grant that they have a case.
All this considered, it is hard not to be disappointed with the lack of impact Tea Party ideals have had on Iowaâ€™s legislative process.Â Letâ€™s take a brief look at the landscape.
Victories So FarÂ
Probably the biggest achievement Republicans at the State House can point to is drastically slowing the pace of growth in the annual budget.Â It would likely shock most Iowans to know that the total appropriations made by our legislature in the year 2002 was $4.375 billion dollars, less than a decade later (FY 2011) the amount spent had jumped to $5.8 billion, an indefensible increase of 33% in less than a decade.Â Though slightly more money has been spent in each of the last few years, getting a handle on this expansion was not necessarily a given, and for this kudos are well deserved.
The problem here of course is baseline budgeting.Â The ridiculous increases seen from 2002-2011 have now been built into future budgetsâ€”with next yearâ€™s expenditure and all projected future years being amounts in excess of $6 billion per year.Â The reality is that Iowans, of either political party, who are holding their breath for a significant decrease in their taxes can expect two thingsâ€”a blue-ish hue followed by a funeral.Â The simple fact is that while future tax hikes can be avoided, as long as the legislature is spending over $6 billion a yearâ€”your taxes are not significantly going down.
Other victories that can be pointed to will be met by fiscal purists with justifiable skepticism, the formation of the Property Tax Relief Fund and 0% allowable growth for education in 2012.Â Time will tell, but the Property Tax Relief Fund may end up being yet another technocratic â€œvictoryâ€ in the legislative shell game.Â I may be wrong, but I can tell you from experience that digging down into the details of many proposed reforms and tax cuts often end up being more of an exercise in moving money around than anything else.Â In terms of the achievement of 0% allowable growth, this was gained in exchange for 2% growth in 2013 and could be completely erased if an already proposed 4% growth rate in 2014 is green lighted.Â For the record, approving a 4% increase in education spending would directly cost taxpayers another $196.2 million.
There are many factors that account for this lack of action, and they make it blatantly unfair to directly blame our fiscally Conservative legislators for not achieving sweeping change.
Chief among these is the narrow, but iron fisted, control spend-happy Democrats have in the Iowa Senate.Â Pragmatically speaking, one could argue it doesnâ€™t make much sense to propose large initiatives that are effectively dead on arrival in the Senate.Â In addition to this it is hard to get movement in these areas when one of the major players, the governor, is not fully on board.Â Letâ€™s face it, while he is undoubtedly a strong Republicanâ€”he isnâ€™t exactly going to be caffeinating any bodies of water under the cover of darkness any time soon.
Realistically the most valid reason is the predetermined circumstances surrounding this session.Â All the oxygen is being consumed by the massively involved efforts left over from last session, which include preventing built-in tax increases, re-structuring mental health services, and a flailing attempt at education reform.Â A final thing that deserves mention is that they have been put on defense by having to block a continuing parade of costly bills introduced by the Democrats most Liberal wing.Â Stay tuned as The Conservative Reader: Iowa will be posting an analysis of these proposals in the near future.
Some Boldness Would Suffice
I think that most Tea Party supporters in Iowa have, so far, looked at the variety of factors in play and given a pass to the fiscal-hawk wing of our legislature.Â Most of us are reasonable in our expectations and we realize that big political results are hard to come by.Â That being said, the time to at least start articulating a vision and making the case that real tax cuts will only follow real spending cuts is at hand.Â At this point we are not even demanding deliverablesâ€”even some boldness would suffice.
An example of this boldness has been displayed recently by Sen. Brad Zaun, and everyone in the movement should take the time to drop him a note of moral support.Â Knowing that it would not even survive funnel week, Sen. Zaun proposed a bold bill that contains a future vision of education in Iowa that is worth fighting for.Â Directly following this session other Tea Party leaning members would be wise to start following suit.Â It is their job to start constructing an agenda and a platform that can eventually cut taxes by cutting spending.
So, has the Tea Party Movement in Iowa crested?
While it is fair to reserve final judgment on this, the lack of real legislative results proves at the minimum it has receded.Â As of right now the Tea Party trajectory in Iowa closely resembles the illegal immigration outrage that came to a National boil in early 2008â€”a huge movement that has delivered small victories along the way before largely fading.
After providing the weight for the water displacement which created the wave in 2010, many fiscally concerned Iowans are standing on the shore in 2012 with only soggy ankles.Â I suspect that the political energy needed to make the case statewide forÂ smaller governmentÂ is still readily available.Â What is needed at this point is a tightly formed caucus with a vision supported by pieces of actual legislation.
Without brave and principled leadership this movement cannot be sustainedâ€¦we will be watching.
For the past few years, I have been watching my weight carefully.Â I value the life I have been given, and I want to take good care of myself through proper sleep, diet, and exercise.Â In March, my mother-in-law died, and it only took a couple weeks of constant grazing through the meals of generous friends and families to result in a weight bulge.Â I could feel the extra weight at my waistline.Â Try as I might, sucking in my stomach didnâ€™t make the problem go away.Â A similar lack of discipline with spending has put Iowa and other states in financial messes.
The Iowa Legislature annually engages the stateâ€™s school funding formula to provide â€œallowable growthâ€ to public school districts.Â Because of the stateâ€™s challenging financial situation, the Republican Governor and Republican-controlled House have been attempting to hold the line with a proposed 0% allowable growth against the Democrat-controlled Senate.Â Impasse occurred.Â Public school superintendents lobbied hard for a 2% increase.Â Typical partisan politics have thus far prevented a final budget deal, and the Legislature is several weeks past their anticipated adjournment as a result.
I have an interesting perspective on this issue of educational spending, because I spent the first 20 years of my career as a teacher, coach, associate principal, and principal in several public schools of Iowa.Â For the past 11 years, I have served as the superintendent of a non-public school.
I am embarrassed to admit some of the spending habits in practice during the first phase of my educational career.Â We didnâ€™t do anything illegal.Â And there were no $500 hammers.Â But, as I look back on those days, we could have been MUCH more effective stewards with the monies entrusted to us by Iowaâ€™s taxpayers.
As we were closing out the books on fiscal years, we were sometimes left scrambling to figure out how to spend balances of General Fund accounts which could not be carried over to the next fiscal year.Â Budget makers too often padded accounts from year-to-year for â€œwants,â€ not â€œneeds.â€Â Such was why I was always a strong advocate of zero-based budgeting, but I was seldom successful in implementing that practice in its purest form.
I vividly recall attending a meeting of government officials who were charged with explaining the process for submitting proposals to obtain Obama stimulus monies for Iowaâ€™s schools.Â A surreal moment occurred when one of the policymakers actually said, â€œThere is so much money, I donâ€™t know if you can figure out how to spend it all by the deadline.â€Â I shook my head in disbelief at that time.Â Did he really say that? I thought.Â He did.Â No question.
My perspective on educational spending changed dramatically when I entered the arena of non-public education.Â Our schools survive mainly on the tuition dollars of our parents and guardians, with additional dollars raised through fund-raising.Â Non-public school leaders take their fiduciary responsibilities very seriously, because we definitely need to give a strong return on the investment of parents and donors.Â The business practices are much more conservative in non-public schools than in public schools.Â Waste not, want not.
If I said aloud to my public school colleagues what I am about to write publicly, I would probably be met with fairly defensive responses, but I must say the â€œunpardonable.â€Â Just as federal and state governments should be attempting to tighten their belts by eliminating duplicated programs and wasteful spending practices, so, too, should the stateâ€™s schools carefully scrutinize all line items and expenditures.
Iowaâ€™s schools so often look at increased funding as THE answer to any problem.Â But I contend that millions of dollars could be saved through concerted streamlining.Â To whom much is given, much is expected.Â Accountability is crucial.Â ALL of the schools in Iowa â€“ public and non-public â€“ must do their parts to be excellent stewards with the financial resources entrusted to them.Â Times are tough.Â Weâ€™ve got to figure out ways to stretch our dollars.Â Time to stick to the basics.Â Weâ€™ve got to lose some of that fat which has come to too often characterize our budgets.Â Discipline and dieting will put Iowaâ€™s schools in better shape.