A critical year for Iowa public schools.

First off, I want to make it clear that the following words are my own thoughts and reflections as I observe the discussion over education happening in state level politics in Iowa the last couple of years.  I work for West Des Moines Community Schools.  These words are my own and have no reflection on the West Des Moines Community Schools.

My family is a transplant to Iowa.  Although our kids were born in Iowa, both my wife and I were born in Minnesota.  Our kids almost identify with Minnesota as much as Iowa as they love trips back to my wife’s family in South Western Minnesota.  Iowa has been great to us.  The Des Moines metro is a great fit for our family.  But the last couple of years the state of Iowa seems to be shifting its values in respect to public education.

In the beginning of 2017 the Iowa legislature voted to change Iowa’s collective bargaining laws.  A major component of the bill limits bargaining to wages.  This means that school districts can decide to set health insurance rates, work day issues such as how many hours teachers are with students versus time in meetings and time to plan lessons, and anything else that affects the work of a teacher’s or support staff’s work day.  Interestingly, 147 school districts in Iowa rushed to sign or extend contracts with their local associations before the bill was actually signed into law.

Much of how this new law will affect the everyday lives of people working in schools in Iowa has been clouded by political rhetoric surrounding labor unions.  Those not in support of unions tend to think the law is good and those in favor of unions tend to think the law is bad.  But I’m more interested in how decision making will change because of the law and how that will affect everyday operations of schools.

The previous collective bargaining law, in place over 40 years, brought teachers, administrators and school boards together for serious discussions about work place environments.  So often only the % increase of wages requested is reported but there is so much more in a master contract.  For example, how many hours or minutes in a day should a teacher be teaching students versus planning or communicating with colleagues and families?  Is there a perfect balance throughout a 40 hour work week?

A teacher makes hundreds of decisions a day ranging from curriculum implementation, on the spot lesson changes and which words to use with a student in a certain situation.  The emotional and mental drain of making decisions, in my view, is the most difficult part of teaching.  Add in the usual family, wellness and personal decisions for a teacher and there are days that it is extremely hard to be at one’s best.  So what happens if the system adds more decisions onto the teacher’s plate?  At some point, teachers will start to make decisions that allow them to regulate how many decisions they are making in a day.  Naturally, human beings adjust when overwhelmed with something.  This will change instruction.  As districts add more student contact time, more staff meetings and more duties they are forcing their employees to decide between doing as much as they can for their job and managing emotional and mental energy to last for a whole teaching day.

And there are more and more districts who are attempting to take out the permissive language in the contract between teachers and boards of education.  A quick search shows such as Indianola, Cedar Falls, Burlington and many others have already offered proposals to move permissive language from the contract to the employee handbook.  Often, workers in the private sector will lament how they must follow their employers handbook therefore public workers should have to do the same.  But should that be the driver behind how schools operate?  Do we want employees who are charged with guiding our young people to collaborate, lift each other up and learn in community to be barred from the table of what that work looks like?  What happens in classrooms when teachers do not have as much of a say about work day procedures?

Analyzing how collective bargaining affects teacher quality is a difficult task.  Susan Moore Johnson outlines the difficultly and lack of research on the topic well in “The Effects of Collective Bargaining on Teacher Quality.”  Two things seem to be clear.  Collective bargaining slightly raises wages.  There is correlative evidence that higher teacher pay produces higher teacher quality.  The 2nd item is that collective bargaining produces slightly lower class sizes.  Once again, there is some correlative evidence that lower class sizes are associated with higher teacher quality.  Student achievement increases with increased teacher quality.

Even with the little data that we have, it is clear that in 2017 the Iowa Legislature enacted a reduced form of collective bargaining which will reduce the quality of teachers in Iowa over time, simply due to pay and class size.  Fast forward to 2019 and the Iowa Senate education committee just pushed through a school choice bill centered around what proponents call tuition grants and opponents call vouchers.

1st off, the idea of school choice is not as simple as it may seem to be.  We all want the best for our kids.  Especially with something as important as their education.  But is the question about choice for individual students the correct question to ask?  Can we separate the needs of our student from the needs of the students we are in community with around us?

There are a lot of variables to consider to truly analyze school choice and there are a variety of methods and procedures to implement school choice programs.  School choice begins with families choosing where to live.  Granted, this isn’t a choice outright about schools, but neighborhood schools tend to be a variable in people’s decision making centered around where to live.  Surprisingly, some research shows that 13% of family rearing aged families choose a place to live because of schools.

Many districts offer families the opportunity to open enroll students to schools among the district or even to schools in the area from other school districts.  If this happens within a school district public money used to educate that child stays in district.  If it happens between districts the public money follows the student to the new school district.  There is quite a bit of research from school districts like Chicago and Pinellas County, both large school districts, that demonstrates open enrolling doesn’t affect student achievement.  Although both studies above show evidence toward positive impacts on non-academic items that do benefit students.

Some states, like Indiana, have tuition grant or voucher programs.  The difference between this and open enrollment is that families decide what school to attend and the public money used to educate that child will follow the child to the school.  Typically the funds can be used to attend any school although there are a variety of ways these programs are set up.

There is quite a bit of research that shows some positive impact on student achievement for those students who use a tuition grant or voucher in such a system.  Even so, many of these students do not analyze who uses vouchers and what happens to the students who do not choose to use a voucher or credit to attend another school.  There is research to show that over time, the funds for these programs are accessed by the wealthy, even when they are designed for low income families.  What happens to the students left behind who do not access the tuition grants?

Their schools end up with less resources.  Less resources causes there to be less programming in those schools.  This tumbling effect then actually causes their to be LESS school choice as instead of there being an average performing public school with a strong private school there becomes a low performing public school with the strong private school.  If there is not significant improvement in student achievement, what is the purpose of a voucher or tuition grant program?

Money.  Senator Sinclair in Iowa makes it clear that the legislature’s tuition grant bill will save the taxpayer money in the end.  Check out some of the responses at Iowans for Public Education.  Iowa’s potential education tuition grant bill will give students about $6,800 dollars for families to direct toward any school even though the state pays a little over 10,000 per student now.  Notice that the legislature which just claimed to make an historic investment in education hopes to create a tuition grant system simply because it is cheaper.  What’s really going on?

Parents, you want the best for your child.  But so do public schools.  Public schools are not filled with bureaucrats just taking your tax money.  We want your child to become the best version of themselves.  And you choose how your neighborhood schools educate your child.  You elect school board members.  You join committees.  You interact with the school community whenever possible.  Your kids to excel within community.  They need their peers to have the best possible education as that is what makes us all better.  Resist the barrage of school choice rhetoric as it really seems to mostly be about money and who gets it.  Offer your child the best choice by uplifting your neighborhood schools.




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