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Democrats rally around education

CORALVILLE— Education took center stage Saturday, Feb. 25, at the second of four legislative forums sponsored by the Johnson County League of Women Voters. The event, held at the Coralville Public Library, was co-sponsored by the Hawkeye Chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the Iowa Federation of Labor.
Five Democrat legislators, Rep. Vicki Lensing (HD-78), Rep. Dave Jacoby (HD-30), Rep. Mary Mascher (HD-77), Sen. Bob Dvorsky (SD-15) and Sen. Joe Bolkcom (SD-39) were in attendance. Democrat Rep. Nate Willems (HD-29) declined to attend.
Republicans Sen. Sandy Greiner (SD-45), Sen. Jim Hahn (SD-40), Rep. Jarad Klein (HD-89) and Rep. Jeff Kaufmann (HD-79) declined or were unable to attend. Kaufmann had several events scheduled elsewhere in his district.
The legislators each gave a three-minute summary of what they saw as critical issues before them and their legislative chambers. The Democrats made it clear from the start where they stood, and took frequent shots at their absent rivals from across the aisle.
“We should have done allowable growth (a formula for state funding that local school districts utilize for budget planning),” said Jacoby, “…our main funding mechanism for our schools, and we have not done that yet. We tried to get it done in the (Republican controlled) House, but our suggestions were…rejected.” Jacoby also took aim at Republicans and differing views on Board of Regents institutions (state universities) and economic development appropriations.
“Instead of reducing the budget, they zeroed…the budget…out. That’s it. Zero.”
Mascher, a former teacher, said education reform bills have passed out of both the Iowa House and Senate.
“I like the Senate version better,” Mascher said to laughter. She then attacked parts of the House plan, which give her angst. One was a proposal to allow online learning for Kindergarten through 12th grade. Mascher said, “In essence, it would allow kids to take online courses 100 percent of the time.” Her concern centered on what she saw as the potential for excessive screen time for the kids as well as a profound lack of social skills learned through interaction with other students.
Mascher was also unhappy with a provision for expanding charter schools in the state.
“Obviously, they have charters that are going to be run by lots of entities other than the public schools. My whole concern with that is in every other state that has had charter languages, (in) the states that had multiple entities, the kids performed at a lower level on assessments than those kids who don’t.”
During the open microphone part of the forum, Anne Marie Kraus, a teacher/librarian with the Iowa City Community School District (ICCSD), stepped forward.
“I have so many questions about education reform, it’s hard to choose,” she said before selecting the online education Mascher mentioned. Kraus expressed concern about “outsourcing our maximum amount of tax dollars, and our teacher quality to unknown entities that are out-of-state, for-profit companies,” she said. She went on to quote from a report the previous week on Iowa Public Radio (IPR) in which Jason Glass, Director of the Iowa Department of Education (DOE) appointed in December 2010 by Gov. Branstad, allegedly said it “doesn’t matter what the Legislature says.” Kraus said Glass told IPR, “(Iowans are) just not forward-thinking and are afraid of change.” Krauss indicated Glass feels he carries the responsibility for the decision for online education.
“Good luck with that,” Dvorsky said to laughter. “Director Glass really needs to understand, he doesn’t have one vote in the Iowa House or the Iowa Senate, and we’re the ones making the policies.” Dvorsky described Glass as tough to deal with, saying Glass comes to committee hearings but won’t answer questions, but preferring to press releases.
Dvorsky said the Senate bill knocks online education to no more than 50 percent and thinks maybe it should go lower than that.
Mascher was blunt in her criticism.
“One-hundred percent online learning is illegal now in Iowa. The Department of Education under Jason Glass is not enforcing current law.” Mascher said the Senate has asked state Attorney General Tom Miller to render an opinion, “because we cannot get the department who’s supposed to oversee our education system in Iowa to do their job.”
Mascher said some online providers are moving forward in the anticipation of offering their programs as early as next fall. “And, they are actively recruiting, which we all know is not appropriate according to Iowa law.”
Eileen Fisher of Solon asked about a proposed law instituting tobacco-free schools in the state. Many districts have already adopted tobacco-free campus policies, but Fisher and her group, Clean Air For Everybody (CAFÉ)– Johnson County, are lobbying for a statewide law. The Senate passed the tobacco-free school grounds law last session, but it was not considered in the House.
Mascher said the bill passed the Iowa House Education Committee unanimously, but the House leadership referred it to a second committee, where it died. Mascher used this instance as an example of what she sees as a frustration with the legislative process at times. “Even though it had bi-partisan support, and was passed unanimously, the tobacco lobby is alive and well in the Iowa House.”
Mascher turned to the ongoing debate over allowable growth, which legislators were to have set within the first 30 days of the session. Mascher took the Republicans to task for putting forth a bill to change the requirement without undergoing the full process. “The Senate did their job, the House refused. They decided they would change the law and make it so we would not be required to do it in the first 30 days of the session,” she said. “You have to get agreement with the Senate and get the Governor’s signature in order to do that.”
Jacoby clarified a point on the online learning proposal. ”No one here is going say online learning is not a part of education,” he said, noting his own daughters benefit from it. “But what they’re proposing is you get 100 percent of your K-12 education staring at a screen. That is what the proposal is.”
Jacoby said he was at a loss as to how and why legislators were having the discussion without setting the allowable growth a couple of years out. Jacoby said the delay puts school administrators at risk by not being able to plan their budgets, creating the potential to lay off teachers and increase class sizes. “It puts each one of our students a half-a-year behind because you don’t know what the student-to-teacher ratio is going to be.”
Latrenda Soukup, an ICCSD teacher, asked about the hold up.
“What’s the issue? If you could tell us the real story,” said Soukup. She asked for a timeline and reminded the legislators that educators anxiously await that information.
“The reason that this law was passed originally was to give schools the opportunity to plan,” Mascher replied. “We passed the allowable growth formula two years out, so schools can do two-year contracts with teachers, and to be able to plan accordingly. We all said education was our top priority, which is why we would set that before we did anything else.” Mascher continued by accusing Republicans of “reneging on that promise to Iowans, and again, violating the law.” She urged teachers to e-mail their Republican legislators.
Jacoby reminded the assembly that there was a year of zero percent allowable growth, which set schools back financially. The Senate has proposed four percent allowable growth, which he said will help some of the shortfall.
Dvorsky weighed in, saying he thought Republicans were acting in accordance with the Governor’s desire for a two-year budget. “I think the Republican legislators think they can break the law because they’re doing what the Governor wants to do,” Dvorsky said. He speculated that Republicans may put off allowable growth until next year, opting to set the rate every two years.
Two more legislative forums will be held this spring, with the next scheduled for Saturday, March 31, at the Iowa City Public Library, and the last session on April 28 in the North Liberty City Council chamber, 1 Quail Creek Cir., North Liberty.