How To Get Iowa’s Education System Back To Excellence

Guest post from Jack Hatch on his upcoming book – the fourth security: education

Iowa is moving in the wrong direction on education. After national rankings in the top 3 states, Iowa today is ranked 24th among states on a broad range of metrics from early childhood education to high school graduation. The picture in higher education isn’t much better when Iowa is ranked with the third highest student debt. The state’s regression to the mean on education is an astonishing reality for most Iowans, who have become accustomed to educational excellence as a bipartisan norm only to see our advantages decline in this decade. Iowans need to understand that our future is directly related to our children’s education and to our adult’s lifelong training. We must restore excellence, and we must expand educational opportunities and invest in that expansion.

There’s no doubt that the Republican Party has provided the major crushing blow to public schools. The lowest average increases in state spending on schools have come during the past six years. Any expansion of our universal early childhood education program has been mothballed. Our teacher pay rank has fallen to the middle. The money to upgrade schools is coming from the communities whose property tax revenues allow them to build. Everyone else is out of luck.

Long gone is the class size initiative that made Iowa’s elementary and middle schools the envy of the nation under Governor Tom Vilsack.

When the only exposure Iowans have to the education debate is an abstract number of increasing the funding for public school, 1.25% versus 2.99%, the message becomes a balance-sheet driven by money discussions and moves us away from the debate we should be having.

Iowa needs to focus on reaching every student (adolescent to adult learner) with every kind of need, such as disparities among local schools, how to lower student debt and increase training opportunity among vocational trades and businesses. Most of all, it would place a relentless focus on the need to invest in our system to restore our long-lost reputation of excellence. The following are policy areas we must focus:


The title of this section is not just a slogan. We can’t continue to rely on state and federal funding. Today, over 100,000 students attend community colleges and  Iowa’s tuition ranks third-highest in the nation with 51% of the operating budget coming from student tuition; more than twice the percentage at the three state universities.

If we ask our students to pay more, tens of thousands of potentially trained Iowans will not get vocational certificates or associate degrees. That would be fatal to job creation because we wouldn’t have the trained job pool employers need.

In order to provide free college for two years at our community colleges, the state will have to allow each college’s board of trustees, the authority to raise property taxes on only the largest businesses that received the largest windfall from the 2013 Corporate Property tax reduction. This will begin to reclaim some of the corporate give-away the Republicans provided to the largest businesses in the state when that legislation was passed.


Iowa should create a public Student State Bank. We would use new resources by capping federal deductibility on personal income taxes from the highest 1% of Iowa taxpayers to collect $50 million for a limited period of time to reach a sustainable, protected, well-funded and responsible lending program that would benefit students for generations to come. The “bank” would be located in the State Treasure’s office. It will refinance existing student loans and make new loans at an interest rate of 1%.

A student with $25,000 in debt (the average for an Iowa student graduate), could save $9,800 over a ten-year period merely by paying less interest. That’s money that could form a big chunk of a down-payment on a house for middle-class families.

Today, Iowa student loans range from 6% – 9%. That’s outrageous, but that’s what happens when the financial system is “rigged”.


We know our children must arrive at kindergarten ready to learn if they are to succeed in school. However, during the past six years, there’s been absolutely no progress in Iowa.

In the 2010 campaign, Governor Branstad incredibly singled out the preschool program by name for repeal and has done a notable job at hammering away at our 4-year-olds, making sure they don’t all attend preschool. Now, 30 percent of our eligible 4-year-olds don’t have access to state-funded preschool.

A common-sense approach would be a bipartisan commitment to start our students in the best possible environment. This is an area in which working middle-class Iowa families would really benefit from having their government involved. Every Iowa child has a shot to compete in the economy we are building. Nothing less meets the test for excellence in our educational system. This is how Iowa gets back to the cutting edge of education among states.


Compulsory education laws in Iowa require children to attend school from age 6 to 16 years.

Why would we allow our children to quit school and put themselves in a position to make it harder for them to get a good paying job, find a career or pursue more vocational opportunities? Why would we give up on this age group and send them into society without a prayer of succeeding?

The progressive proposal is to increase the mandatory age to attend high school until 18 years of age. This will require cooperation from teachers, school administrators, school board members and the state. It may require more money and physical resources, yet we must not give up on any young Iowan. It is our obligation to make it possible for our children to succeed.


Our community colleges are the backbone of our job training system. What Iowa businesses need is a skilled workforce that would be available to take advantage of the high-wage, skilled jobs in Iowa’s future. There is a “skills gap” among Iowa workers. Middle-skill jobs, or those that require an education level between a high school degree and an associate’s degree, make up about half of the jobs in Iowa, yet middle-skill workers represent only 33 percent of the state’s workforce. We should invest in Iowa adult students.

Our community colleges have developed some strong partnerships with the private sector business community. We need a massive expansion of these programs, to allow businesses, big and small to tap into a stronger job seeking pool. These programs could have state government pay for training for a short period of time while the adult student is working. This arrangement is what’s known as On-the-Job Education. It’s also an excellent replacement for the kinds of mindless tax cuts Iowa has given giant corporations.

If Iowa is to compete for expanded and new manufacturing jobs and prepare our students for new job demand by a global economy, Iowa has to invest in our education system with gusto.


by Jack Hatch
Posted 12/13/16
Photo via Flickr

4 Comments on "How To Get Iowa’s Education System Back To Excellence"

  • It is kind that you did not mention that President Obama has been in office during these last eight years of education decline in Iowa. While he has used his magic pen to solve many of our national problems, he must have not solved the needs of public education. But have no fear. The good news is that the new Secretary of Education will be looking for models that have really worked to improve public education. For example, in south Texas, children are moving in droves from independent public school districts to public charter schools. There they are receiving an education from dedicated teachers who prefer to be in those schools. For those teachers, having the opportunity to teach motivated students of supportive parents is a real plus. Maybe the public charter school concept could help Iowa rebound. But first, my guess is that Iowa needs to improve its education of future teachers at the college level, in places like Iowa City. Teaching is not about the money: it’s about the kids.

    • Hey Henry,
      I’m a (somewhat) recent graduate from The University of Iowa’s College of Education. I can assure you that the university is doing some really fantastic and innovative things in educating our new teachers. The school is ranked in the top 50 by US News. In my opinion, this is pretty impressive when you consider that there are 2 other highly respected public education programs in such a small state.
      But that aside, I’d also like you to reconsider your view on charter schools. You mention success in South Texas (do you have a resource you could point me to on this?) which is great. However, the problem I have with the scenario you describe is that the students without supportive parents- the ones who need public education the very most in order to grow into productive members of our society- are left at public schools that have been gutted. The fact is, charter schools produce roughly the same scores in math and reading as public schools- ( While there are certainly examples of successful charter schools, I can assure you there is a successful public school that can share a similar story. I think that charter schools in Iowa would be a step in the wrong direction. Look at Indiana as an example where charter doesn’t always mean better:
      Lastly, Henry, I have to mention that your final comment is quite insulting as an educator. Of course we teach for the kids! Trust me- if you go into education and don’t like kids you’re gonna have a bad time. However, by increasing teacher pay we can attract higher quality young people who want to join a profession where they are well compensated in comparison to other professional degree fields. After all, you’re looking for Iowa City to start producing some better teachers, right?

    • Teaching must be the only thing that is not about the money. Remember, you get what you pay for. If teaching pays poorly, good students will become nurses or accountants or managers at Pizza Ranch.

    Yes. But broaden our understanding of high quality early childhood “education.” Of course EVERY child deserves excellent “before school” experiences; they do not require “brick & mortar” institutions for that to occur. Our young children need high quality intentional care – not just institutional care as is too often the focus(UPK). Children, particularly young children, thrive in “the most natural environment” (play based learning). Children do not need an institutional setting for quality learning to occur, they do need intentional, engaged caregivers and these people exist in many environments throughout Iowa (and the country). We MUST broaden the perspective of what young children truly need and in which environments do they best thrive.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *