Dear Representative Rogers:
I want to start by saying thank you to you and all of our legislators that have been attending public forums. It is always good to be able to share our concerns with you and as chair of the House Education Committee this year, we especially appreciate the opportunity to let you know how we’re feeling about education in our state.
I am not an educator, but I am a graduate of public school. I am the mother of a university student that graduated from public school and of a 7th grader in public school. I live in a community where our public schools contribute greatly to our quality of life. I am what I hope will be a lifelong resident of Iowa. And I care about Iowa’s future. If even just one of those criteria applied to me it would mean what happens to our public education system affects me and my family.
I watched the House debate education funding recently, and it raised a few concerns for me on what we’re really looking at when we try to evaluate our public schools and determine how to best support them. It is easy to look at the numbers for the state as a whole, to look at our rankings and think that tells us how we are doing with education in our state, but there is a problem with only looking at averages and rank: We tend to miss important information that the full data is trying to tell us.
Big picture. Not the whole story.
You started your closing remarks on the education funding bill by saying that Republicans had never cut education since becoming the majority in the House. At first glimpse this appears as though it could be true, depending on exactly what you are referring to. If by not cutting education you mean you haven’t lowered the supplemental state aid rate, that is technically true. But there have been years where funding was not increased, even though costs for educating Iowa’s students did increase, and years where the growth in funding has been so small as to have been negligible to our schools. It’s easy to use percentages and total numbers to make this sound better than it is. (My mother used to send me to the store with a dollar to buy a gallon of milk. If I gave my daughter $1.50 to get milk for me now, that would be an impressive 50% increase in our milk budget, but she’s still not coming home with a gallon of milk.) If we only look at funding levels but don’t acknowledge increases in educational costs, we’re seeing the big picture, but not the whole story.
After years of under-funding, just “not cutting” education isn’t going to be enough. If our goal is to start moving Iowa back up the ranks of educational quality we are going to have to be willing to make the investment required.
You also said we haven’t had massive teacher layoffs, that the number of teachers has risen every year, and that’s almost true. In 2014/15 there were 34,725 full time teachers in Iowa. In 2015/16 that number rose to 34,727 full time teachers. Yes. 2 more teachers. In that same time frame? Iowa went from a total of 480,722 students in public schools to 483,451 students in public schools. That’s 2 additional full time teachers to handle 2,729 additional students. (In 2009 there were 474,227 students in Iowa’s public schools and 34,643 full time teachers. So in 7 years we gained 9,224 students but only 84 full time teachers.) To look at the total number of teachers in the state’s public schools as a whole number and claim there have been no layoffs is a bit disingenuous. We may have had a net gain of 2 teachers, but that only means that some districts were able to hire additional teachers, it does not mean other districts were not forced to eliminate teaching positions. At best, it would mean all districts were able to maintain their level of teaching staff, but that isn’t likely the case. I’m sure many superintendents and school boards would be willing to clarify that for us, and many have been trying. It is equally important to note that the numbers we are dealing with here address only the issue of full time teachers. The numbers available from the state do not address the part-time teachers so many rural and smaller districts rely on nor does this statistic address the employment levels of para educators and support staff that are just as crucial to our educational system.
Again, big picture, not the whole story.
In the same time period, (2014-2016) the number of superintendents dropped by 4, the number of principals dropped by 11, we lost 28 media/library specialists and 8 positions at our AEAs.
You also addressed class sizes, saying they remained steady or are even increasing in some classes and that’s true. They are increasing and that’s not a good thing. In 2015/16 the average class size for Kindergarten through 3rd grade is 20.775 In 2014/15 that average was 20.725. That doesn’t seem like much of a change, but again, it won’t if we are looking at statewide average. There are districts with falling enrollment numbers that have smaller class sizes and pull the average down. There are also districts facing record enrollment growth that are challenged by tight budgets and can have upwards of 30 to 34 students in a classroom. To truly understand the current issues being experienced due to growing class sizes we would need to look at the actual data from every district. While the change in class sizes between 2014/15 and 2015/16 is small it does continue the gradual upward trend we’ve seen since the mid-2000s. (In 2009, enrollment jumped 7.7% but average class sizes for Kindergarten through 3rd grade that year still dropped to 19.95. Looking beyond statewide averages, the smallest ten districts had class sizes of 8.7 and the largest ten districts averaged 21.5 that year.) Averages do not tell the whole story. In fact, during the last 16 years, none of those grade levels were able to reduce their average size to the state goal of 17 students per classroom. (Only third grade saw a reduction at .4%, K, 1st, and 2nd grades saw increases of 1.2% to 2.5% in that 16 year time period.)
You talked about rankings. You covered some additional information on your website, though not on the floor of the House, so I’ll share those numbers here for anyone who may not have seen them.
You touted teacher salary levels and their rise in rank: Iowa has been pretty stuck in the middle on that one, popping back and forth between 25th and 26th before finally bumping up to 23rd in 2015/16. Even in the tough budget year 2009/10 we still managed to rank 26th.
You shared about our rank for state expenditures per pupil: Our 2015/16 ranking there is 27th, up from 28th in 2014/15 and you’re right, we were at 35 when Republicans gained the majority in the House. And the year after that. And the year after that. And 34th the year after that. It took five years to see any significant change in our rankings on spending.
The fact that we moved that much on expenditures per pupil while not actually raising the amount we spend by any large percentage shows us the danger with relying on rankings for assessments. As with our rank change on teacher salaries, we don’t know if Iowa moved up in the rankings because we did so much better or if it was because the states around us moved down in ranking. It is most likely a combination of both causes but without seeing all the data, we’re seeing the big picture, not the whole story. Rankings alone don’t really tell us much.
Yes, graduation rates rose again, making us the first state in the nation above the 90% level, but at the same time the number of students planning on pursuing any type of post secondary education or training is trending downward.
You pointed out that schools are providing proof of tackling difficult problems. I absolutely agree. You say you own that. With that I simply cannot agree. The continued success of Iowa’s schools in spite of being chronically under-funded, expected to do more with less, and struggling to follow all state mandates, even those that are un-funded, is due solely to the passion, dedication, and sacrifice made by Iowa’s education professionals. NOT Iowa’s politicians. Finding a way to make it work, pushing to do what’s best for their students, even with limited resources and in less than ideal learning environments is what they do every day. That does not vindicate the lack of support and proper funding that has gone on for too many years. Instead I think that tells us that if given proper resources, Iowa could do even more amazing things in our schools. (And perhaps begin the process of once again being known as the education state.)
For years we’ve heard that money is tight. We’ve heard that we should think of the state’s budget like a household budget. And we’ve heard how our need to be cautious is the fault of Governor Culver and the state’s 2009 across the board cuts. Representative Rogers, I’ll tell you what I’ve taught my children. When you first identify the root cause of a problem, I’ll let you pass responsibility to that cause, but if years go by and you have done nothing to correct that problem? Then the responsibility is yours alone.
As for thinking like a household budget, while I disagree that a state’s budget can be that simplistic I will, for the sake of discussion, make that comparison. In our household, like many, we look at our budget from two angles. First, for the immediate budgeting, we look at what we have as income and budget our expenses to not exceed that amount. Second, for more long term budgeting, we look at what our actual needs are, and if that exceeds our current income, then we start looking for ways to increase our income so that those budget needs can be met. This is especially true if the need is something for our children. Like many parents, we are willing to make sacrifices and do a little extra work if it means we can provide things our children need. We need you as legislators to do the same.
For years public schools have been demonized as greedy, money hungry, wasting state taxpayer dollars on bad teachers that expect to be paid exorbitant amounts. I’ve heard your party admonish them to “do better” at controlling costs and learn to do more with less. I guarantee you, Representative Rogers, that not a single district telling you they need more funding is asking for that money for frivolous things. They aren’t asking for extra. At this point they aren’t even asking for “sufficient”. What they are asking for, is “enough” money. Just what is necessary to hire the number of teachers they need to actually offer all the classes their students should be taking, to properly equip lab spaces so kids can do more hands on learning and less watching other people do experiments in videos, and more textbooks, so students have up to date information in books they don’t have to share with their neighbor and can take home with them to study.
I didn’t get a chance to ask my questions at our most recent forum.I hope you’ll be able to answer these for us, so all of your constituents know where you stand on these education issues.
- What specific funding regulations are being looked at for change? Which rules will be made more flexible to free up existing funding for our public schools and how soon can we expect these changes to be implemented?
(Not just “big picture” economic development ideas. Specifics.)
3. In many of your speeches and legislative updates we’ve heard you mention that you
support teachers and you care about education. What I have not personally heard from
you is that you support PUBLIC education or PUBLIC school teachers. Will you go on
record in expressing your support for public schools and teachers in Iowa?
I grew up in Iowa at a time when we were well known and celebrated for our excellence in education. I am proud to be a graduate of Iowa’s public schools. I want my children to be able to say the same. Our public schools do the best they can every day to meet the diverse needs of each of their students with the limited resources we’ve provided them. They do this by looking at the whole story. The whole story of each of their buildings, grade levels, classes, and students.
Not just the big picture.
And not just the bottom line.
Data source: Iowa Department of Education, Annual Condition of Education reports