Back To School With State Senator Joe Bolkcom

State Senator Joe Bolkcom

By State Senator Joe Bolkcom

Where did the summer go! Time is moving on! The signs of a new school year are everywhere! Good luck to all our students getting back to school! We have our work cut out for us to continue to improve our schools and support of teachers!

Turning Iowa Schooling into Career Success

Iowa continually has the best high school graduation rate in the country, with more than 90 percent of students graduating on time.

That’s one of the stats highlighted in the annual Kids Count Report.

This is good news that we need to build upon by ensuring Iowa students are getting the preparation they need to take on the opportunities that await them. However, the report also tells us Iowa ranks 46th in the number of people ages 25 to 34 that have earned a degree beyond high school.

We must do better. Iowa businesses say their biggest problem is getting enough qualified workers to fill job openings, and 70 percent of Iowa’s workforce is projected to need education or training beyond high school by 2025.

Republican budget cuts to higher education have forced increases in tuition, cuts to financial aid and program offerings, larger class sizes and other challenges that make it more difficult for Iowans to further their education and job training after high school.

Student debt is already among the biggest problems facing our state, according to an Iowa Poll earlier this year. When they finish college, 68 percent of Iowans are in debt.

It won’t get better any time soon unless we act. In fact, Iowa State University is seeking to raise tuition seven percent each of next five years.

Affordable college and job training is critical to growing our economy, and we can make it happen when we Put Iowans First.

Three Ways Iowa Schools Do More with Less

This fall, students are returning to schools that have faced ongoing budget cuts. Iowa has seen record-low investment in K-12 education under Republican leadership over the last several years.

While state revenues grew by 4.9 percent over last year, funding for schools went up just one percent. Yet Statehouse Republicans approved a $62 million tax cut for millionaires in 2019, almost double what they added to K-12 funding for this year.

While most schools have been forced to scale back because of misplaced Republican budget priorities, I’m proud of the way educators are innovating and stretching their dollars to boost student learning.

Here are three examples:

Sharing – Since 2008, many Iowa schools have shared some staff and administrative positions, including superintendents, business management, human resources, transportation and maintenance. The state provides financial incentives to schools that opt to share positions. Ultimately, the schools and the state save money while boosting educational excellence. Last year, 230 districts got state incentive money to share administrators. It promotes good working relationships between neighboring school districts and helps smaller schools meet students’ educational needs with limited resources.

Flexibility – Schools are taking advantage of opportunities for flexibility in how they use funding to more effectively meet unique local needs. For example, some schools need to focus more on programs to help kids stay in school and on track to graduate, while others may need to purchase safety equipment for sports or use available funding to cover student lunch debt.

AP coursework – A Des Moines Register story this summer highlighted how Iowa schools increasingly use Advanced Placement coursework to up the rigor and expand learning opportunities in their classrooms. While many students take AP courses to earn college credit, those who don’t pass their AP exams still gain a lot by tackling more complex material that prepares them for problem solving in college and on the job. Iowa City has three schools doing a lot with AP coursework: West Senior High School, Regina High School and Iowa City High School.

K-12 Opportunities Expand Outside the Classroom

Over the last decade, schools across Iowa have expanded learning and teaching outside the school building. Providing real-world work experience as part of academic curricula brings together schools, businesses and organizations to educate our youth.

The idea of infusing entrepreneurship into education has spurred much enthusiasm. It can equip students with the skills they need to succeed in today’s turbulent economy.

Entrepreneurship isn’t about thinking up a new or complicated business. It can be as simple as babysitting, yard work or dog walking. Going through the process of treating money-making activities as a business gives students valuable life experience in organizing paperwork, registering an entity, and getting a business license and tax identification number.

Apprenticeships for high school students are also gaining popularity as a way to address Iowa’s workforce needs. This summer, Iowa introduced a High School Registered Apprenticeship Playbook to help guide employers, schools and students through the process of implementing a local program. The combination of classroom instruction and on-the-job experience allows students to gain skills and learn about career opportunities, while helping businesses find and train the right people to fill their job openings.

Closing Labor Center: One More Attack on Iowa Workers

In July, University of Iowa officials announced—without warning or input—that they were closing seven centers and cutting funding for others. Among those slated to close is the Labor Center. To many, this is just another attack on workers led by Republicans in the legislature and the administration.

The Labor Center, established in 1951, provides direct education for more than 2,500 Iowa workers across the state each year. These workers learn about health and safety laws, anti-discrimination laws, workers compensation laws and leadership skills that they can share in their workplace and community. The Center also serves as a resource on labor and employment law for faculty and students.

While UI has touted the closing as part of an effort to put more resources into student education, the money saved will be kept by the College of Law, and the University will lose almost $1 million in federal grants as a result.

Public hearings throughout the state are allowing Iowans to speak up on the Labor Center’s value to workers and communities. You can also contact UI administrators directly to ask them to reverse course and continue the Labor Center’s mission.

In addition, Iowans are encouraged to attend the Board of Regents meeting on Sept. 12 and 13 to make their voices heard.

To find a Labor Center public hearing, sign the petition and get contact information for UI officials, go to

~ State Senator Joe Bolkcom (D-Iowa City) is an Assistant Leader and ranking member on the Appropriations Committee. He also serves on the Human Resources and Ways & Means committees, as well as the Health & Human Services Budget. This post was excerpted from his Aug. 20 legislative newsletter.

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