Guest Post from House Minority Leader Mark Smith
The 2016 session starts next week and another protracted battle over public schools seems to be looming.
Before session begins, let’s take a look at the big picture because it explains a lot about the current state of public schools in Iowa.
How did the Legislature get into this now annual fight over public schools? When did public schools – the top priority of Iowans – get moved to the back burner at the State Capitol?
It started back in 2011 when Republicans won the majority in the Iowa House of Representatives and Terry Branstad returned to office. It was the time of the tea party, and many lawmakers swept in to office that year have a radically different view of education than most Iowans. They believe the only route to a good education is through home schooling or private schools.
The latest figures available show 2% of Iowa kids are home schooled, but 28% of Republican lawmakers in the Iowa House are homeschoolers.
That’s a dramatic statistic that has fundamentally changed the conversation on public education at the State Capitol over the last five years.
Instead of putting public schools first and listening to local school leaders, these Republican lawmakers are moving public schools to the back burner by changing the conversation to “Why value public education at all?”
After winning approval to remove all accountability from home schools, they’re emboldened and have turned their focus to building support for a plan to divert $200 million from public schools to private schools and home schools instead. The chief sponsor of that bill just a few years ago is the new House Republican Majority Leader Chris Hagenow.
Unfortunately, the home school lawmakers aren’t the only ones working against public schools at the State Capitol. Another group of Republican lawmakers have pushed schools out of the top spot and replaced it with tax giveaways for corporations.
They’ve developed a shrewd budget scheme to set aside millions of our tax dollars that can ONLY be spent on giveaways to corporations and their high-dollar donors.
Here’s how they do it. Republicans pass a school funding bill in the House to make it look like a priority for them. Then, they refuse to compromise with the Senate in order to delay school funding for at least a year.
While stalling on public schools, Republicans enact tax cuts phased in over several years to guarantee almost all new revenue growth is eaten up by tax cuts before it can be used to invest in public schools.
That’s what happened in 2013 when the state generated a record surplus and then enacted a huge corporate tax cut that is still being phased in this year.
Branstad and Republicans did it again last fall. After Republicans learned the state would record another budget surplus, Branstad used his bureaucrats to enact another tax cut for corporations while the Legislature wasn’t in session. The move made certain that money was off the table before it could be considered for other purposes, like reducing class sizes.
It’s no coincidence the tax cut happened just two months after the Governor vetoed money for public schools because he said the state couldn’t afford it.
The good news is Iowans still believe in our public schools, even if tea party lawmakers don’t. House Democrats firmly believe public education should be the top priority of the Iowa Legislature. That means we take care of public schools before new tax cuts or other new programs are considered.
When the curtain gets pulled back on a new legislative session on Monday, don’t be surprised to see Republicans pushing public schools to the back of the line again.
by Mark Smith
Iowa House Minority Leader