Rhetoric …

When word got out the governor was seriously thinking about vetoing the one-time money for schools next year, we were encouraged to contact the governor’s office … which I did.  Below is the response I received yesterday … more rhetoric without saying anything.  I fully understand the volume of correspondence the governor’s office must receive – overwhelming.  However, if time is taken for a response perhaps sharing a straightforward answer would be better than extolling all the wonderful things the governor is doing.  Although I may not like the answer, if an actual answer is given I can respect the process.  Throwing things against the wall to see what may stick is not a straightforward answer – neither is rhetoric that says absolutely nothing – neither is justifying action by continuing to throw the legislature under the bus.  This isn’t how it’s supposed to work ….

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Dear Kevin,

Thank you for writing Gov. Terry Branstad and Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds about preK-12 education funding. Giving Iowa children a world-class education is one of their top priorities, so that all students learn the content and skills needed to succeed in today’s knowledge-driven economy. That is why the administration has targeted historic funding for education reform, including better utilizing the leadership of many of Iowa’s outstanding teachers to improve instruction and raise achievement.

Governor Branstad is committed to predictability and stability in the state budget. Using one-time money without the Legislature establishing regular school funding for Fiscal Year 2017 does not provide school districts with the certainty they need to plan.

Iowa’s preK-12 schools will receive more than $3 billion next school year, the single largest share of the state’s $7.2 billion budget. In addition to Iowa’s new Teacher Leadership System, education reform measures include a comprehensive literacy initiative to assure children read by the end of third grade and an expansion of Iowa Learning Online to offer more courses to high school students statewide.

Thank you again for writing, and please feel free to let me know of any concerns in the future.

Sincerely,

Office of the Governor

Linda Fandel, Education Policy Advisor

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Kids as Political Footballs …

Not sure if you’ve seen the Des Moines Register this morning … if not click here (or read the copy/paste below).  Well, my day started so well – we’re working on our Teacher Leadership and Compensation (TLC) grant application – the irony of stopping our work on one of those infamous “targeted funding” opportunities to read the governor’s defense of his actions just makes me shake my head … As I’ve stated before, “targeted funding” is certainly not a bad thing – in fact philosophically it makes some sense to me.  However, here we sit at I-35 not having received a dime the past two years for TLC while other districts have … Further, the obvious intent of targeted funding is so the state can control what happens in the schools – my take is that local schools obviously can’t be trusted to make decisions.  So no one thinks I’m a thoughtless radical that just wants money and to be left alone to do whatever – I’m not.  I understand and endorse basic requirements from the state for all schools – with rising transiency among our students and families, having consistency between districts makes great sense.  All kids, regardless of where they attend school, deserve a quality education.  I also believe the concept of local control was a cornerstone in the development of public education.  Again, targeted funding makes some sense – as long as it doesn’t supplant money needed to cover the basic expenses of providing an education for our kids.  If I remember correctly the governor promised TLC funding would not supplant regular funding to schools.  Well, 1.25% for next year, his line-item veto of additional one-time funding, and including TLC funding in press releases on how well the state has funded public education seem to make his statement suspect. Targeted funding is well … targeted … which means it can only be used for the specific purpose – it can’t be used to pay the energy bills, transportation costs to get kids to and from schools (how many schools in Iowa would be classified as rural? :-)), etc.  Does anyone else feel beaten up when the governor talks about “… you just throw money at it?”  What exactly does that mean and/or insinuate?  My reaction – I’m being accused of frivolous spending … who the heck has time or resources available for anything frivolous in schools?  The notion of any low-hanging fruit left to pluck from the financial trees is absurd.  My goodness … have these politicians spent any time in real schools, with real teachers, and with real students?  I also find it interesting the governor’s primary education advisor was a former journalist who happened to travel to Finland and write a series of articles on what Finland is doing in education … to my knowledge she has no experience in the trenches of schools.  That isn’t necessarily a completely bad thing because the world needs dreamers and idealists for change and good things to happen – but also could be classified as someone in the ivory towers casting his/her “wisdom” with absolutely no clue about the real world.

I also find it troubling when the governor says things like this in the article – When asked if school districts should cut teachers, Branstad responded by saying they could keep staff “if they plan and use their resources wisely.”  Hmmm … we try to use our resources wisely all the time but I guess we just have to try harder now that the governor has explained this …   Finally, I guess based on the governor’s next statement, we really need to model our schools after state government …“We in state government have cut the number of employees by 1,500 and are using our resources in a more efficient manner,” he said. “Schools are the biggest recipient of the state budget. … They get over $3 billion.”  I apologize for the sarcasm – but really?

What exactly is the governor’s agenda?  I hope I’m wrong … and again this is just my opinion … but I think the governor has two goals for education:  1) create a voucher system (I believe the current term is education spending account) where a parent gets money from the state for schooling and allows them to use it wherever they want – including private and parochial schools, and 2) breaking the ISEA (teachers’ association).  My perspective is both goals are wrong for someone leading PUBLIC education.  As shared previously, I think private and parochial schools offer a great option for families – but state and local tax money should not be used in support of these schools – it should be an option available for families at their cost.  I also am offended by wanting to break the ISEA – the message is teachers are overpaid already and underworked – or at least that’s my take on what is being insinuated.  Do these people understand every ounce of research supports teachers being the most important cog in student performance and learning?  Are all teachers “good” – of course not but that also why we invest in professional development in helping folks to improve. Because some may not be exemplary we choose to chastise all teachers – that is just wrong.  My question back would be – Are all politicians good?  I’ll leave that answer to you …

You can certainly agree or disagree with my opinions – that’s the beauty of a democracy.  However to have a governor with this agenda using terms like “world-class education” seems to be a disconnect from his actions – and frankly that is more than a little troubling. Again, this is just my opinion … but IF I AM RIGHT, using our current students’ education in the current system as political footballs to accomplish an agenda is just plain wrong.

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Branstad: Throwing money at schools won’t improve them

Gov. Terry Branstad on Monday again defended his line-item veto of $55.7 million for Iowa schools, saying a budget where “you throw money” at schools won’t necessarily improve them.

Branstad instead argued that strategic investment is the way to make Iowa’s education system better, and he pointed to reform efforts that are underway, including a $100 million teacher coaching initiative that aims to improve the quality of classroom instruction.

His comments during his weekly news conference come amid outrage from educators over his decision to veto the one-time, earmarked money after a hard-won compromise in the Statehouse.

But they also give insight into Branstad’s reasoning, beyond his previous comments that one-time money is “bad budgeting.”

“I think you have to look at the whole picture,” Branstad told reporters Monday. “It’s not like the old days — you just throw money at it. And that didn’t get us the results we wanted.

“Now we’re trying to specifically target our resources on things that we feel confident will prepare our students for the quality jobs that we’re creating in this state in the 21st century.”

Jimmy Centers, the governor’s spokesman, said the state’s fiscal health, and providing stable, long-term funding, were the governor’s top budget priorities this year.

And he reiterated the administration’s commitment to “world-class” education, which “is demonstrated by significant, targeted growth in funding for initiatives to raise achievement.”

Branstad said those strategies include a greater focus on early reading — before the critical third-grade year — and STEM, which is science, technology, engineering and math.

And he pointed to the Teacher Leadership Compensation program, a hallmark of the 2013 education reform package. After a three-year rollout of $50 million, the state has pledged ongoing funding of $150 million to pay for full-time, part-time and supplemental teacher coaches in schools.

However, some school leaders have said the 1.25 percent increase approved this session will prompt cuts to programs or personnel. They’ve said at least 3 percent is needed to “break even” because of inflationary costs to heating and electricity, plus employee raises.

And despite the one-time money being earmarked for certain expenses, such as textbooks or transportation, school officials could have used it to free up general fund dollars for other expenses.

When asked if school districts should cut teachers, Branstad responded by saying they could keep staff “if they plan and use their resources wisely.”

But he also referenced belt-tightening at other public agencies, and the need to make government more efficient.

“We in state government have cut the number of employees by 1,500 and are using our resources in a more efficient manner,” he said. “Schools are the biggest recipient of the state budget. … They get over $3 billion.”

Following Up …

Well, traffic on this site increased exponentially yesterday … the beauty of social media I guess! 🙂  Thought it might be a good idea to follow-up with a brief post today.  Thanks to everyone who read the unpublished letter to the editor (still haven’t heard from the Des Moines Register and still not optimistic it will be published) … and for those who offered comment.

In the letter I suggested the system of checks and balances built into a democracy either are, or are becoming, out-of-whack in Iowa government.  Please allow me to expound just a bit more … the governor’s line-item veto of one-time funding actually is part of the system of checks and balances – he certainly did not exceed his legal authority in doing what he did.  However, another part of the system of checks and balances is the ability of the legislature to override a gubernatorial veto.  I believe the governor has such a “tight grip” on legislators from his political party that there is absolutely no way the required 2/3 of both the House and Senate “sign-on” for a special session to override the veto – I genuinely hope I’m wrong on this.  Again, this is my opinion – but evidence seems to support the governor having almost a stranglehold on Republican legislators – that to me is where this goes completely off the rails.  What happened to the principle of politicians voting their own belief system regardless of the position of the executive branch or other outside influences?  Perhaps I’m too simple minded … but I want our representative government officials to study, learn, and formulate positions on data and what they believe to be right – not feel,  or dare I say, be bullied by the governor to hold the party line.  On a slight tangent – the irony of having bullying legislation a cornerstone of the governor’s legislative platform this past session just absolutely blows me away.

As long as I’m on a roll here … it also troubles me the governor indicated a concern for using one-time money for ongoing expenses – and I would agree with that basic economic principle.  However, the legislature clearly stated the one-time money could only be used for non-recurring expenses.  I fully understand this is a slippery slope – but at Interstate 35 we had already began a list of expenses that would be covered through the one-time money and meet the criteria set forth in the legislative compromise – including purchasing new math materials for grades 6-12.  We will now have to find the money to cover this purchase and other things on the list – but the reality is something has to give.  Further, the governor was irritated the legislature did not agree to a two-year funding bill for schools – so the solution to his displeasure with the legislature is to lessen the total money for fiscal year 16?  How exactly does that help our kids?  It just seems to me the priority was teaching the legislature a lesson at the expense of our current students.  Again, perhaps I’m too simple minded … but if that was the reason then it was just plain wrong – period.

Finally, it troubles me a great deal that the governor is not a product of public schools.  Please don’t misinterpret that statement as condemnation of private schools – it isn’t.  Although a veteran of public schools for 36+ years, I defend the right of parents to choose to educate their kids in private schools – I just don’t support tax dollars being used to do so.  It just causes me concern when the governor expounds the things he has done, a champion of public education of sorts, when his personal track record is almost exclusively private schools.  Again, I believe this is/was the governor’s right to choose private schools.  I also believe the governor deeply loves the state of Iowa and has provided service over the years few could match.  I just believe recent actions – and perhaps patterns – are concerning, especially for all the kids in public schools in Iowa now and into the future.  Our kids deserve better.

Okay, I’m done for today.

Letter to the Editor

Greetings everyone,

Things got “a bit busy” at the end of the year so I took a hiatus from posting to this blog.  I’ll attempt to do better in regularly updating …

As you’re likely aware, the 2015 legislative session in Iowa was long, contentious … and more than a little frustrating.  To put things in perspective, schools were required by law to certify their budgets for FY 16 (officially began on July 1, 2015) no later than April 15, 2015 … yet the legislature did not finish their work and let us know what revenue we would have until June.  To make a challenging situation even more challenging, last week the governor used his line item veto to strike out one-time funding for schools agreed to by both the House (Republican majority) and the Senate (Democratic majority).  For Interstate 35 Community School District, this means receiving $99,858 less than the legislature agreed to provide.

I’ve now been in education as a teacher, coach, principal, professor, and superintendent for 36+ years – and this is the most frustrating situation I’ve dealt with over these years.  Education is sometimes vilified as always wanting more money – of course we want more money as additional funding allows us to do more for our students – and the only thing important in schools is what we’re doing for our kids.  I do not and will not apologize for wanting what is best for our kids.

In any case, I am also concerned with the direction our great state seems to be heading regarding leadership; consequently I authored a letter to the editor and sent it to the Des Moines Register earlier this week.  Because it is much longer than their recommended 200 words, I’m not optimistic it will be published so I’m going to share it here.  Please understand these are my thoughts and beliefs and I’m not representing Interstate 35 Community School District directly with my comments.  You can agree or disagree – that’s the beauty of a democracy – but take some time to reflect not only on the words but also on where we seem to be heading as a state.  To me the only word that keeps coming up is … troubling.

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When Iowa Became a Kingdom

I have now been involved in education as a teacher, coach, principal, college professor, and superintendent for 35+ years.  I have never been more disenchanted with the politics involved in educating our children.  Being a former government teacher, I always taught the legislative branch of a democracy was responsible for the making of laws; the executive branch was responsible for implementation of the laws – basically American Government 101.  A system of checks and balances was built into the system to keep one branch of government from becoming too powerful.   Perhaps I’ve been wrong all these years as it somehow appears to me Iowa has moved away from the basic tenets of democracy and actually moved toward a kingdom/monarchy.

Why would an educated, experienced veteran of education make such a statement?  Fair question – allow me to explain.  Governor Branstad recently used the line item veto to remove one-time funding for public schools of Iowa.   In his press release he basically lauded his efforts to increase “targeted growth in funding for initiatives,” as well as used the rhetoric of “My administration’s commitment to giving Iowa students a world-class education.”  All of this is just fine and dandy – and yes targeted funding through the Teacher Leadership and Compensation system has brought additional funding to the schools, albeit targeted (code word for lots of strings attached).  However, my current school district is in the last group of schools to apply for TLC funding – so we have not yet seen a dime of this targeted funding so proudly exclaimed by the governor.  Hopefully we will have our plan approved for year three – but the additional funding available for schools in years one and two of TLC implementation is lost for us and will never be recovered.  Is a student in my district worth less than a student in another district?  The answer is no – but in real dollars from the state the answer sadly is yes.

Let me take this a step further – the governor chided the legislature for not following the law in setting state supplemental assistance in a timely manner.  This is the same governor that I sat and listened to at an event the year before proudly proclaim they would not be setting state supplementary assistance for the following year even though that is what the law required.   Hmmm … one can’t have it both ways sir.

Even further into this thought process – I regularly conversed with legislators throughout the 2015 session.  I don’t remember the exact number but at least three or four legislators told me it was circulated the governor would not sign anything greater than his initial proposal of 1.25%.  Either that came from the governor or his office/staff – doesn’t really matter as it was taken as gospel by these legislators.  In any case, the Republican controlled House and the Democratic controlled Senate battled it out the entire session (and into overtime after the official session was to end) over funding for schools; the legislative process was basically crippled for all areas.  Eventually the legislative process worked and a compromise was reached – by nature a compromise doesn’t make anyone overly happy but is something done in good faith and can be lived with.  All the while the legislative session was unfolding (perhaps unraveling would be more apropos), those of us in the trenches in schools were left not having a clue about a budget for FY 16 that had to be certified by law by April 15.  By the way, those of us in the trenches chose to follow the law … seems like the right thing to do.

Although 150 legislators negotiated in good faith in arriving at the compromise, our governor opted to ignore their work and do what he wanted to do from the start – set funding at 1.25%.  He then further chastised the legislature for not setting spending for schools for FY 17 at the level he initially proposed.  In my estimation he basically threw the legislature under the bus for political cover and extolled all the things he and his administration have done for education.

I’m quite sure our founding fathers did not envision this type of behavior for our democracy – but the signs are here that Iowa, at least in public education, is operating as a kingdom where the king does what he wants.  You are certainly welcome to disagree with my assertions – but perhaps we could better fund things in this great state, including public education, if we just disbanded the legislative branch and let the governor continue operating with apparently no restrictions on his power.  Of course that is the silliest idea ever, but look at the data of what is happening … more than a little frustrating and alarming in my estimation.

Partisan politics is the death knell of civility in public service – and from my perspective it appears the king of partisanship is in the governor’s office.  I’m quite sure the founding fathers did not envision the chief executive of the state holding his party’s legislators hostage and not allowing them to think for themselves.   We have watched partisanship cripple action at the federal level and now we’re having the same thing happening in Iowa.  We are better than that … and I would ask the governor and legislators to put their political party in the background and figure a way to walk across the aisle in a civil manner and work together – for this great state and for our kids.

I would in no way minimize the contributions Governor Branstad has made to the state of Iowa over his many years of service.  However, in my estimation, he is wrong and has crossed way over the line this past legislative session.   We – especially our students – deserve better than we’re getting.   So no one believes my comments are political in nature – I register based on which primary or caucus I want to participate in – and have never voted a straight party ticket in my life.  My comments are from a genuine concern for the kids in our public schools – now and into the future.

Respectfully,

Kevin W. Fiene, Ed. D.

Current Superintendent in Iowa