Pretty much every Saturday during the Iowa legislative session elected members of both houses convene at venues throughout the state and take comments and questions from the public. If you happen to have both Republican (Tea Party) and Democrats representing your area you can hear some pretty wide gulfs in opinion. Also if you listen closely enough you can hear the repetition of talking points and framing coming particularly from the Republican side of the aisle.
Last Saturday there was a legislative forum which featured 3 Democratic state senators and 3 Republican state representatives. There was a true contrast in how budgeting in general and for schools and road repair in particular are viewed. As can almost be expected I found most interesting the Tea Party representatives framing of issues. In particular the framing by Rep. Tom Sands was most telling. Sands heads up the Ways and Means committee thus making him a very powerful legislator since all spending must be approved by his committee.
For the most part there were questions abou the possibility of getting our roads and bridges fixed. They are bad, folks. Iowa ranks number 48 out of 50 for bridge integrity. We could wait until a bridge collapses and kills some folks before getting them fixed. Or we could do like we used to in the olden days – before Reagan – and have an ongoing maintenance program. The latter is not popular among the no tax crowd.
With bridges in such bad shape and roads obviously sorely in need of repair and an estimate of a $215 million shortfall this year for road repair, one would think that finding money to fix roads or upping the gas tax would be quite popular. Not true. Democratic legislators expressed support for raising the gas tax, provided such a tax is supported by a majority of Republicans. Republicans were much more hesitant. Rep. Sands went into a diatribe concerning taxes and the federal government ending with a really unsubstantiated charge of the economy being weak because of Obama. Sands was clearly against any new tax, citing the major tax cuts in previous years
School funding issues brought out the real anti-tax guns, though. Once again Rep. Sands led the anti-tax / state can’t afford it talking points. Sands noted that the state was not even liable for the mandated 1.25%. Democrat Chris Brace noted later that if a district falls short of the mandate they can assess local property owners. Democrats were solid in supporting a 4% allowable growth increase.
If Republicans have their way, Iowa will fall further down the list of per pupil spending from 35th to 42nd. This in a state that once set the standards for the country. Now we land in the middle and continue to head down. At public hearings held January 26th many potential problems of continued underfunding were pointed out. Larger class sizes and cutting of faculty were the top consequences. Many school will be looking at cutting electives which may put more pressure on Iowa students entering college.
Democrats work on a philosophy of determining public need and then developing means to achieve those needs. Republicans develop policies that favor their donors, develop legislation to implement those policies and then create the environment that could make such legislation applicable.
This is hardly a secret since it has been employed over and over again. This is where an organization like ALEC comes into play. ALEC is a a corporate funded entity. ALEC’s mission is to develop corporate friendly legislation. One often used strategy is to make governmental services seem incompetent, overpaid and costly to run. ALEC then has legislation to replace such government service with a private company alternative that is supposedly more responsive and nimble and reputedly cheaper. At the federal level we can see this at work in the way in which Republicans are going about a systematic dismantling of the U.S. Post Office. We can also see it at work in the attempted dismantling of Social Security and Medicare. We can see it at work in the attempt to defund the ACA.
So here on an Iowa level we see the Republican attempt to under fund our once proud school system. As the chair of the House Ways and Means Committee and also a member of ALEC, Rep. Sands sits in a prime spot to see that schools continue to be underfunded. When schools are underfunded they cannot achieve the goals set for them as easily. When such goals are not achieved, politicians with an agenda to siphon off money to private schools will be lining up to publicly denounce the under-achieving school systems. This will then result in less funding.
Along with this strategy will be a campaign to undermine teachers and of course teachers unions. All this helps set the stage for the ALEC answer of privatized charter schools as a component of the public school system. This solution has already been put in in many states under the guise of “school choice.”
Whether charter schools are better or not often lies in the eyes of the beholder. Many studies find them to be less effective than public schools. That doesn’t stop supporters from pushing the propaganda by highlighting positives and ignoring negatives
However, in many cases charter schools have many different rules to play by versus their public school counterparts. In many states charter schools are not run by local school boards but by the parent company. Their funding is public and often less adversarial than funding for public schools has been. Teachers wages are usually lower and unions are usually absent. In many cases schools have some say in who makes up their student body. But most importantly, the focus is not on student achievement but on corporate profit. Let the buyer beware!
Let’s connect the dots then:
– Republicans have a solution. The legislators task is to help create the circumstances where their preferred solution seems doable.
– It really helps to create those circumstances if one of your members holds a crucial seat in the budgeting process.
– Underfund the entity or process that is the target
– Quickly use media to point out the failure of the targeted entity or process
– Repeat until the targeted entity cracks
– Offer ALEC created legislation with preferred solution
– Legislation creates very friendly situation which helps chances of success
– Funding for privatized entity much easier than for public entity.
– Move to next target, repeat process
BTW – the legislature is already late in meeting their obligation for producing school funding. This also throws extra stress on the public schools in planning. Republicans just have to throw our schools anchors instead of life preservers as they sink.