116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
DES MOINES — Third-grade elementary school teacher Mike Beranek got more than he bargained for when he stepped into the lead role of the Iowa State Education Association more than three years ago.
Armed with the work ethic and collaboration skills he brought from his 4-H farm boy days in Washington County, Beranek took the lead role in fighting efforts to “gut” teachers’ collective bargaining rights and confronting culture war battles over divisive concepts, private vouchers and charter schools, and controversial COVID-19 protocols — or lack thereof — in the throes of a public -health pandemic.
As president of Iowa’s largest teacher’s union, Beranek, 61, has been at the tip of the spear in advocating for safe school settings, fair working conditions and compensation for his 34,000 members and adequate state funding to meet the needs of nearly 500,000 students educated in a system that traditionally has been highly regarded nationwide.
“I believe if we receive the support that’s necessary, public education will continue to be the shining star in our state and one that our state can use as a recruiting tool for companies to locate in Iowa,” Beranek said in an interview last week.
“But if there’s a continuation in the reduction for public education in Iowa, then that has long-term effects in terms of the number of companies who want to relocate to Iowa because they know that their employees want a high-quality education for their children and, in order to function as a company in Iowa, you need a workforce — and those employees look to their public schools as one of the major decisions to move to Iowa or to stay in Iowa.”
Beranek earned his dues working in the public-education trenches, serving 30 years as a highly regarded West Des Moines elementary teacher who was honored with the Disney American Teacher Award for 2001, being cited for his innovative classroom projects and activities.
Education wasn’t his initial career path, said Beranek, who grew up on a farm in southeast Iowa and saw his future in horticulture. But the farm-debt crisis of the 1980s and budget cuts to the government’s extension program caused a shift in plan so he graduated from Iowa State University in 1984 with a degree in early childhood education. He followed that up with another ISU degree in elementary education in 1988.
After involvement in a number of educational, policy and union issues at the state and national levels, Beranek was picked as ISEA vice president in 2012 and followed that up by being elected association president in April 2018 and reelected for a second term this year.
In his role, the ISEA leader said he has seen trends that are cause for concern, with the “continued chipping away of the public school system” by advocates for private for-profit charter schools or vouchers using taxpayer money to fund private school tuition.
Iowa’s workforce shortage also is creating pressures within the education network as a large segment of experienced teachers move toward retirement and midcareer and as entry-level educators face new uncertainty brought on by health risks associated with the pandemic and scrutiny by groups pushing an agenda focused on divisive concepts and other hot button issues complicating already challenging educational settings.
“We still have a workforce here in Iowa that is one of the best in the country and our educators remain dedicated to our field,” said Beranek. “But it’s making it more difficult because there are individuals who are choosing to leave the state because they can find higher salaries and better contracts in other states. Or it is also creating an environment where people are reconsidering whether they want to be employed in public education because of the lack of support demonstrated by various entities here in Iowa.
“We still are working incredibly hard. We are at the top of the game nationally with our graduation rates and ACT scores. So, our educators are providing world-class education. But the unintended consequences of our collective bargaining rights being gutted is coming to light right now. There are districts that are becoming destination districts because they have maintained their contracts and folks are choosing to move to those districts where there are good contracts in place,” he said.
The challenges and pressures facing public education are of particular concern in smaller communities and rural areas where schools are the economic engines that help maintain the livelihood of those communities, he noted.
A disrupted 2020 school year in which Gov. Kim Reynolds ordered schools to close and switch to virtual learning, the subsequent stress for teachers to prepare multiple lesson plans and provide for the educational as well as emotional needs of their students and the ongoing controversy associated with reporting and tracking COVID-19 cases in schools left many educators exhausted and “has caused some individuals to reconsider their futures in this profession,” he said. But, overall, he described the mood of teachers he encounters in his travel schedule to be “strong and resilient” and dedicated to making kids’ classroom experiences “as normal as possible.”
Also of concern, he said, is an effort by Republicans who control the Statehouse to “redefine” local control in a way that translates into actions like the decision at the close of the 2021 legislative session to impose a ban on mask mandates at schools, which was signed into law at midnight to take effect immediately. Parents and educators who awoke to a policy shift directly impacting their daily lives.
“We believe that the people who are the closest to those students and their communities and the employees in those schools are the ones who should be making those decisions,” said Beranek.
Another near-term flashpoint for education is the upcoming November school board elections where some single-issue advocates focusing on mask mandates in schools, divisive concepts instruction and taxpayer funding of education are hoping to use traditionally low-turnout and little-noticed ballot decisions as a vehicle to engineer the changes they support.
“Iowa has always been very nonpartisan when it comes to school board elections,” noted Beranek. “This year I believe we are seeing an increase in the number of folks who are publicly stating that they belong to the Democratic Party or the Republican Party and there are consequences to that.
“When folks are sitting on a board of education for a school district, partisan politics should not be in play and decisions should be made that benefit the entire community,” he added. “A school board member should not be running to change one issue. A person should be running for school board to move forward and be innovative and to provide the best public education they can. There is a difference between running for a position on a board of education to change one item as opposed to running for a board of education wanting to better the entire system.”
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