In my senior year of high school I took advanced physics with Mrs. Osborne; one of my favorite classes with one of my favorite teachers. Being an advanced-level course, only kids who wanted to be there had signed up for it. The teacher knew that we wanted to be there, and actually wanted us to be there as well. The class was very instructional and free of behavioral problems. Amazingly, the teacher treated us like full human beings – which is not always the case in public school.
The moral sentiment at work was that of voluntarism – not to be confused with volunteerism, which is when career politicians or community leaders want you to work for free. Voluntarism is the manifest free will; when you do something because you want to do it.
In my opinion, only voluntarism can save the academic future of most youth, and thus education reform is largely a waste of time.
Compulsory state education does not have the tools needed to enact this lesson on a societal scale. How can you introduce voluntarism into state-run, compulsory education? You can add a handful of electives for a handful of students, but how can an institution that depends on force adopt the benefits of free will?
The philosophy behind education has also changed; many Americans still equate education with Laura Ingalls Wilder and prairie schools, and a time when education was geared towards teaching specific skills designed to help the students understand the world and be more self-reliant in it.
Teaching to increase self-reliance is not the same thing as preparing for the jobs of tomorrow. In times past, the philosophy of education acknowledged – as the pediatric human resource gulags of today no longer do – that children are actually people.
A Dutch Masterâ€™s Take
Any person who is concerned about the state of education in this country would do well to consider â€œThe Geographerâ€ by Johannes Vermeer. (You can see a representation of it from Wikipedia here) Â A man is stooped over a map on a table and holding a compass. His other hand is resting on a book – he is propped up by knowledge in a sense. He is peering out the window, and the cabinet behind him is casting a rather long shadow. Perhaps the man was so carried away by his study that he lost track of time, and is now noticing the sun moving lower in the sky. Such was his delight with his work.
The late art critic Robert Hughes said that the job of art was to â€œ make the world whole and comprehensible â€¦. Not through argument but through feeling, and then to close the gap between you and everything which is not you, and in this way pass from feeling to meaning.â€
Now, this is far too much existentialism for anything run by the government to digest, let alone copy. There is nothing for government to gain by having self-reliant people in a whole and comprehensible world.
Besides, the students donâ€™t need to understand, they merely need to be trainable for wage-serfdom masquerading as opportunity. Understanding the world and having the tools to be self-reliant in it appear to be severe disadvantages today, much to our eventual detriment.
National Career Readiness Certificate
Brought to you by the same people who produce the ACTâ€™s, the NCRC is a test designed to measure applied mathematics, reading for information, and searching for information.
It will also test â€œsoft skills,â€ like teamwork and tolerance, to make sure that the propaganda was absorbed properly and to weed out the self-reliant, self-confident, potential whistleblowers of tomorrow.
According to an Iowa Workforce Development presenter, the NCRC will soon be widespread – if not mandatory – for Iowa high school students. According to someone in the Governorâ€™s Office, it isnâ€™t. He also implied that I was falling for a conspiracy theory for thinking so, which annoyed me.
What is wrong with testing kids for employable skills?
Well, here is what is wrong with it; a fortune in taxes has gone to build schools, staff them with teachers, and bus children to the schools for 13 years at the end of which they receive a diploma, which is apparently so utterly disconnected from any intellectual capacity that the diploma-laden youth must take a standardized test to prove that they can read. Will no one throw the flag on this?
Even teachers who hate everything I have to say will tell you that when a student is interested in something – and it doesnâ€™t really matter what – performance increases across the board.
The excitement dripping from Vermeerâ€™s work captures the essence of learning and curiosity conducted in solitude and peace, by someone who in doing so was quite transported. Government education policy cannot copy this; they can only make room for it.
What Vermeer celebrated in paint, America can suppress with psychoactive drugs. So, children will be sent to school, set to work on things which donâ€™t interest them, and if they donâ€™t sit down and shut up for their boring lessons, then their compliance will be compelled through pharmacology.
So much for manifest free will.
State Senator Kent Sorenson (R-Milo) has been busy so far this session making an aggressive public push to have Iowa reinstate the death penalty.Â The main impetus for this was the horrifying double murder of two young cousins in Evansdale last yearâ€”an act that certainly justifies the punishment.Â Having said that, now is not the time to suck up energy and oxygen on something that even Sorenson himself agrees will not make it to the Governorâ€™s desk.
The Death Penalty As An Issue
The issue itself has two main facetsâ€”the morality of capital punishment and the legal system which weighs the evidence and carries out the sentence.Â The morality concerns in my view are simply ridiculous, as the idea in principal that someone guilty of taking lives is entitled to live because we are â€œbetter than thatâ€ just doesnâ€™t square.Â In essence what this argument says is that due to merely being born and drawing a breath we have a â€œrightâ€ to live regardless of our actions on this earth.Â Besides there being no rational basis for this â€œrightâ€, this principal forces one to say that men like Hitler or Pol Pot somehow should benefit from a social compact which, only because they were born, guarantees their continued existence.Â I canâ€™t imagine anyone winning that argumentâ€”or frankly even making it.
The concerns regarding wrongly executing innocent human beings is a far more valid one.Â Most people who spend their lives in the criminal justice system as lawyers and judges surprisingly will tell you that the system has too many inherent flaws to guarantee all those convicted of murder are in fact guilty.Â Perhaps this shouldnâ€™t be too surprising considering it is a human endeavor injected with strong emotions on all sides and occasional prejudices.Â Even with an exhaustive appeals process in place these concerns should not be ignored with the stakes so high.
Ironically, even in the states with the death penalty neither side is satisfied.Â Those who oppose it are incensed it exists, and those who support it rightly argue that sadistic killers routinely live on death row for 20 plus years.Â The trick for those who in principal support capital punishment is to delineate between cases of obvious guilt and the more â€œwho-done-itâ€ circumstantial cases.
A Possible Solution
If actual legislation were forwarded to return Iowa to a death penalty state, dealing with some of these legitimate concerns would be essential.Â My proposal for doing so would be to have the legal process play out much as it does now.Â Once a defendant is found guilty of murder, is sentenced to death, and loses a limited number of appeals (which are skipped to the front of all legal lines), the case would go before a panel of three judges.Â These judges would be appointed by either the Governor or the Legislature and would be tasked with reviewing the case.Â If all three judges agreed that the suspect is unquestionably guilty of the crime or crimes the death penalty would be carried out within a year of their ruling.
By putting in the extra safe-guard all reasonable concerns of a wrongfully accused person being put to death could be virtually eliminated.Â This would allow for proper justice to be administered in the very few cases where a murderer either confesses, is captured on video, or kills multiple people in a public shooting situation.Â There is no reason why separating out these rare situations canâ€™t be accomplished, and if those advocating for the death penalty are serious they need to focus on ways of ensuring that those executed are done so justly.Â In the current climate it will not be enough to just activate it again as a legal punishment.
Wrong Time, Wrong Priority
Though brining the death penalty back to Iowa would be a welcome development to me personally, at this moment in time it is a wasted effort.
Besides the fact that it will never see a vote in both chambers, the last several sessions have failed to produce tax reform, education reform, mental health reform, and the gas tax issue is still bubbling below the surface.Â Until these issues are dealt with permanently the death penalty debate should remain on the back burner.
Later this session the Iowa Legislature will debate various measures, namely the Governorâ€™s, designed to improve the performance of our stateâ€™s K-12 schools.Â There are three main components to the Governorâ€™s proposal and in a continuing series we will look at each separately.Â Today we start with the most expensiveâ€”the $160 million for increasing the base teacher salary from $28,000 to $35,000 over the next three years.
First things first here, before they appropriate an additional dime of taxpayer money to this system it is both fair and prudent that at least three simple questions be asked and answeredâ€”Who are the great teachers in Iowa? Who are the average teachers? and Who are the bad teachers?
To clarify, by â€œwhoâ€ I mean a literal list of names district by district categorizing each teacher as great, average, or poor in terms of classroom performance.Â Though this sounds simplistic I think most Iowans would be shocked to know how complicated a question this really isâ€”and even further shocked to find out that nobody in the education bureaucracy can currently answer these questions definitively.
All we hear from both political parties is we have great teachers in Iowa, and to both reward this greatness and make sure we have great teachers in the future we have to pay them more.Â Even though itâ€™s just as pertinent to fixing the problem, and because itâ€™s not pleasant or politically correct, we never hear about bad teachers in our classrooms.Â You would think the first step in solving this problem, as it would be in the private sector, would be determine which employees are not performing their jobs at a high level.
While there is no doubt I am skeptical of most of these individual proposals I will reserve judgment and keep an open mind as legislation is crafted and various amendments are added.Â I donâ€™t need to agree with all elements of the final product to support it, but do have to feel that it at least identifies the problem specifically.Â As with all issues there is both a policy and a political aspect that need examined.
From a policy perspective, to just approve a blanket increase in pay when a majority of our schools are functioning very well is sillyâ€”and to spend this money with no clear goal or way of measuring success is flat-out nonsensical.Â Common sense says that in order for anyone, especially a Republican, to support a final bill it would have to contain clear benchmarks and ways of actually proving results were being delivered for the extra pay. As it stands now the approach seems to be letâ€™s just pay teachers more money and in theory kids will learn moreâ€”which hasnâ€™t proven to be the case in the past.
To make the point beyond question that we have already tried theÂ increased funding approach, one needs only to consider the following three statistics: 1) since 2002 education appropriations to K-12 schools in Iowa has increased $650 million (+35.4%), 2) the average teacher salary in Iowa has increased from $36,480 in 2001 to $49,622 in 2010, and 3) 4% allowable growth was given every year from 2006 to 2010.Â In spite of all these amazing numbers, here we are again talking about more money.
What few seem willing to say is that when a school is failing there are only three actors involved to shoulder the blameâ€”the teachers, the parents, or the students.Â Simply put, one of the three, or a combination of all three, are at fault when a school is failing.Â When looking at the teachers one obvious element is missingâ€”a way to fairly evaluate how good each one is and how much money they deserve.Â Until this gets determined one senses that no amount of increased spending will do the trick.Â Here is what I propose.
While unsympathetic to their concerns regarding â€œteaching to a testâ€, Iâ€™m relatively sympathetic to teacherâ€™s arguments that there are many factors out of their control determining a classesâ€™ progress throughout a school year.Â Taking this into account my initial thought on a fair formula to evaluate our teachers (and hence dictate future pay) would look like this: 25%= credit for years on the job and the resulting experience (this would be automatic much like the step and lane increases in the current formula), 25%= based on student achievement using a baseline for the class coming in compared to their results going out, and 50%= determined by a yearly grading and evaluation by their direct superior (usually their principal).
From a political standpoint the construct of the increased pay proposal seems to be offering Democrats (the teachersâ€™ union) the following: we will increase teacher pay in exchange for allowing student achievement to be factored in to teacher evaluation.Â In my view Republicans shouldnâ€™t be bargaining for a student achievement metric in evaluationsâ€”they should be demanding it.Â This should be a reality both because it makes perfect sense, and because past reforms and increases in pay have not solved the problem.Â Republicans should be able to win on the political argument that, in order to fix the problem, Iowans need to know which teachers are adequately doing their jobs.
If there is a political trade to be made in exchange for increasing teacher pay it should be for a significant look at the benefits of true school choice for parents.Â In my mind this would be a four year pilot program in which parents at all failing and sub-standard schools in Des Moines would have the freedom to spend the per-pupil cost attached to their child at any school they chose (with transportation being the responsibility of each participating parent).Â All students involved would have their progress tracked, with reports being given to the legislature after years 2 and 4.Â This would be similar in principal to the Zaun study bill from last session without all the â€œextremeâ€ elements, like abolishing the Dept. of Education etc.
I would love to see baby-steps being taken in this direction, and would dare the teachersâ€™ union to make the argument to Iowans that the well-being of the teachers and their union trumps that of a student in a failing school which they staff.
Given the history of failure in select districts and the many fruitless past funding increases, in general I believe the Republican hand on education reform is stronger than the Governorâ€™s proposal recognizes.Â There is little reason the argument canâ€™t be made that we have tried the teachersâ€™ union way of never assigning blame and increasing spendingâ€”and it has not worked.Â If there is going to be reform, let us at least not try the same blanket increases in spending and hope for a different result.Â Instead we should identify the shortcomings in the flawed districts and fix them specifically.
One of the top three priorities for the upcoming legislative session will be finally putting something on the books to bring Iowaâ€™s commercial property tax rate in line with the rest of the nation.Â After much angling by both sides last year, ultimately no adjustments were made to the tax code.
Below you will find a very brief recap and analysis of the three plans that were on the table last year. Â They areÂ important to know since past will certainly be prologue in this debate.Â Both sides are essentially pushing the same proposed solutions as they did a year agoâ€”and one way or another the law will reflect whichever side wins on the issue.
Governor Branstadâ€™s Plan (House Study Bill 519)
This plan would reduce the taxable value of Commercial and Industrial property by 5% a year for 8 consecutive years.Â The taxable value for these properties is currently at 100%, so in 8 years the plan would allow the State to collect on 60% of the valuation instead of the current 100%.
- The cap for increasing valuations on Residential and Ag properties would be lowered from the current 4% a year to 2% a year.
- The first 3 years of the 5% reduction in valuation would be guaranteed, with the additional 5 years of the 5% reduction being subject to the value of commercial property rising in its assessed value.
- To offset the lower revenue being brought in by local governments the State would pay cities money every year.Â $50 million in year one, $100 million in year two, $150 million in year three.Â After the third year the amount would be raised an additional $30 million per year until it got to a $240 million backfill.Â This backfill would then remain on the Stateâ€™s books every year going forward.
- The proposed money to local governments would be administered in different amounts based on how much a local government was affected by the revenue loss.
Analysisâ€”This, much likeÂ the Governor’sÂ education reform, would essentially be an increase in power and control at the State government level.Â The positive is that, in theory, the local governments would be forced to cut spending as the backfilled money that they receive is projected to be less than the revenue loss experienced by the local governments.Â In the prior incarnation of this plan the â€œadministered based on needâ€ language was not included, so it is quite possible that the backfill sent to the local governments would in fact not require them to actually cut their budgetsâ€”it really would just depend on how different the property valuations were from city to city.
The House Republican Plan (House Study Bill 500)
In many ways this plan has a lot of the same principals as the Governorâ€™s plan.Â One major differences is that it implements in 14 years instead of 8 (interestingly the Houseâ€™s prior proposal called for the 8 years that the Governor has now adopted).
- The biggest difference is that instead of paying local governments to offset the revenue loss, this plan would eliminate the 12.5% â€œ2nd effort levyâ€ (and I believe the $5.40 per $1,000 taxable valuation known as the â€œuniform levyâ€) and instead, by the year 2019, would have the State fund 100% of the per-pupil cost of K-12 education.Â Note: Right now the uniform levy is taken from property owners statewide and the State pays to take that amount up to 87.5% of each years determined per-pupil costâ€”the remaining 12.5% is paid by local property taxes taken from inside each district.
Analysisâ€”There are smaller components to this that I did not investigate fully, but in many ways this approach is the same as the Governorâ€™s in that it limits the local governments taxing authority.Â While the Governorâ€™s plan would take general fund money and give it to the locals, the House plan just takes the responsibilityÂ of paying for things that the locals would otherwise have to spend on with local property tax funds (mainly education).Â Also, like the Governorâ€™s plan, it would not fully offset the drop in local government revenues and theoretically would force local entities to cut the size of their budgets.
Though “local control” is usually a Republican battle cry, in this case it is largely a Democrat argument against the Republican plans. I happen to findÂ the criticismÂ validâ€”but for different reasons.Â The Democrats oppose the taking of local control because it would limit the amount that taxes can be raised, I see it more as limiting the decision making of local communities to pursue what their residents think is best (within the broader State law).Â One of the unresolved issues I have here is how the State paying all of the education funds would play out in terms of funding each school district.Â I believe the current formula allows a discrepancy range ofÂ a $175 per-student from district to district but, given the fact that the State would fund 100% of the burden, the questions existâ€”would this remain and how so?.
The Senate Plan (SF 522)
This bill passed the Senate last year 46-4.Â The only 4 to vote against it were Republicans Chelgren, Dix, Whitver, and Sorenson.
- It would tax the first $30,000 of commercial property at the same rate of residential property.Â This would result in an estimated $555 to $714 reduction for typical Commercial taxpayers (this small amount is one of the reasons that theÂ four Republicans listed above voted against it).
- The plan would top out at a reduction of $6,856 (paltry when you consider thatÂ large retailers routinely pay overÂ $500,000 a year in property taxes).
- The biggest distinction from the other plans is that the savings contained in the bill would not be concrete, but instead would be tied to the total revenue amount brought in by the State.Â Tax relief would only fully materialize as long as the States revenue increased.
- The plan basically offers a $50 million reduction in Commercial property taxes per year, as long as the States revenue increased 4% in that year.
Analysisâ€”In many ways this last bullet point means that it is not really a significant cut in taxes or spending at all, and frankly itâ€™s shocking that only four Republicans voted against it. It has some other provisions that make it, more or less, a way to stop the impending increase in property taxes faced by everyone.Â The positive here is that it does not affect the local governmentâ€™s revenue stream or sovereignty (nor does it backfill anything with other State funds).Â The flip-side is that it does not allow for any reduction in government spending.Â It basically says that as long as the economy is good and values of property increase we will agree to give you a tax credit to soften the burden of your taxes rising along with the value of your Commercial property.
Stating the obvious hereâ€”this proposal is totally insufficient to deal with the size of the problem.Â What makes this plan ridiculous is that one of the major advantages in a tax reform plan is that businesses will know that lower rates are solidly in place for future spending and hiring.Â By having a bulk of the tax savings tied to the amount the State brings in in a given year, you are in essence not able to tell a business owner what his rate will be going forwardâ€”andÂ clearly uncertainty is a killer for business owners
Overview & Summary
All these plans seems somewhat flawed and I donâ€™t endorse any of them on their merit.Â Since Democrat votes are needed to pass something, if I had to I would support the House plan.Â My strong belief is that all three are unnecessarily over-complicated.Â More than anything they are just moving money around and telling local governments that they canâ€™t raise taxes beyond a certain pointâ€”how much you want to bet that this doesn’t stop the same legislature from mandating that the same municipalities do more things every year?
Ultimately my skepticism comes from the fact that these proposals are all about people paying less taxes without putting forth a dollar of specific spending cutsâ€¦funny how that works.
Back in 2001, Iowa decided to securitize its portion of the multi-state tobacco lawsuit settlement. â€œSecuritizeâ€ means to borrow against it. They issued almost $700 million in bonds through the Iowa Tobacco Settlement Authority, with the settlement money itself as the asset backing the bonds. Most of them are even tax-exempt.
Such is the nature of public finance; the settlement was a windfall of revenue that didnâ€™t have to be taxed from the citizens, but instead of just riding the wave, the government used it as collateral to borrow money. Never put off spending that can be done today.
More than seventy percent of the money Iowa receives from the tobacco settlement goes to debt service on those bonds – these, like most government bonds, are coupon bonds, meaning that the accrued interest is paid periodically, usually every six months. The remainder goes to health-related things such as smoking cessation, but the bonds themselves financed â€œvarious capital projects.â€ Iâ€™m not sure what that entails, so far I havenâ€™t found any list of specific projects.
If the tobacco industry finally succumbs to things like smoking cessation programs, those bonds will find themselves unsupported. Not to worry though – they are state-issued securities and failure to deliver will negatively impact Iowaâ€™s credit. Because of this, the legislature would almost certainly pick up the tab with taxpayer money.
So, smoke up – there are bonds to cover.
In the meantime, you canÂ click here to track the sale of Iowaâ€™s Tobacco Settlement Authority Iowa Asset-Backed Series C bonds, my favorite resource for municipal bond information. Of course the fact that I have a favorite resource for such information suggests that I need a more fulfilling career, or perhaps a meaningful relationship.
Ash Trays and Slot Machines
Should you choose to smoke inside a casino, you will be supporting other types of bonds as well. The Iowa Events Center, for instance, was constructed with funds obtained from the sale of bonds that are supported with revenue from the casino at Prairie Meadows.
All of Iowaâ€™s casinos – how many are there now? – contribute revenue in some manner to state and local government coffers through various direct and indirect means, everything from taxes, licensing, and even leases for facilities, not to mention sales and fuel taxes from the nearby communities, although casinos run by indigenous peoples can be an excellent source of untaxed cigarettes.
Casinos have become the first, last, favorite, and perhaps only tool in the box of economic development officials, and cities across the state still want more of them.
There was a time when every person with the sniffles was given antibiotics, despite the fact that while antibiotics fight bacteria, they are useless against viral illnesses. Today, casinos are the alleged cure-all of choice: Factory closes down, build a casino; young people move away, build a casino; county supervisor dozes off during a meeting, build a casino.
Some jobs will be created, some taxes will be collected, and some concerts and shows will be held to keep people busy, but the underlying problems will remain unresolved. No goods or services are created in a casino, and no assets are being bolstered. Money is simply changing hands.
It is also hard to imagine large numbers of people coming to Iowa for the casinos. Iâ€™m sure some people do, but I would think that most of the patrons are from the areas near the casino itself, and thus the money is really just churned around the community, with government taking a healthy chunk after each rinse cycle.
Gambling has traditionally been treated as a vice, and one that was more often illegal than it was celebrated. This vice has now been legitimized as a source of revenue – the beast must have flesh to survive – and it is hard to imagine a serious push to reverse course, although there might be some resistance if the Iowa Finance Authority tries to open a cathouse.
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