116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
If the 2021 Iowa legislative session was, “Public Education’s, Terrible, Horrible, No Good Very Bad Year,” the 2017 session where Republicans seized the majority in both chambers, should be called “Public Employees, Nightmare at the Capitol.”
The 2021 session basically consisted of Republicans crushing local control, and then providing solutions in search of a problem.
They tried to be the first state in the nation to ban tenure at public colleges and universities. They undermined science by forcing kids back to school, and they tried to mandate cursive writing. They redefined the First Amendment by banning topics they thought were divisive. They tried to undermine public schools with vouchers, and accomplished it with charter schools instead. They underfunded schools for at least the fifth year in a row, and turned back the clock to the 1950s allowing parents to teach driver’s education.
That’s just a snapshot of the smug attacks on public education while a raging pandemic killed almost 6,000 Iowans. But nothing compares to the “Nightmare at Capitol” in 2017.
Why bring 2017 up four years after the fact?
Without saying a word during the 2016 campaign, the first order of business for the newly minted Republican majority was to gut the 40-year-old public sector collective bargaining law. Now, after five years of having a silenced voice at the bargaining table, educators are feeling the full impact, and that impact is in salary and benefits but also much more.
In 2017, the law was written behind closed doors, and the public was told, they were making only minor changes around the edges. One state representative, told me, “Teachers won’t even notice the changes.”
They did then, and they do now.
The new law only makes it mandatory to bargain the starting wage for employees. All other employment benefits were either placed in an employee handbook, that could be unilaterally changed by the school board with a majority vote, or they were totally eliminated. That meant many districts eliminated the salary schedule which allows veteran employees accurately estimate what they will earn from year to year. It also means employees have no voice in insurance benefits.
So, what’s the impact for individual teachers? I interviewed a number of veteran teachers to find out. Here is what one said.
“Morale is low. Teachers are retiring before normal retirement age. Young teachers are moving to other states.
“Working conditions have deteriorated. There is often no guaranteed preparation time during the day, and that means more work taken home. Lunch is maybe 25 minutes. Teachers are exhausted.”
But there are also financial implications for retirement income. Iowa Public Employees' Retirement System (IPERS) provides an estimate for retirement based on the educators past salary history because IPERS benefits are calculated using salary.
But after 2017, those estimates were very difficult because there was no longer a bargaining law that made salaries predictable. Here is an example from one veteran teacher.
In 2017, she asked for a salary estimate for possible retirement in 2020. IPERS overestimated the salary she would earn in 2020 by $1,888. The actual lower salary impacted the teacher’s retirement income by $100 per month for life. The change in the law not only impacted her working salary, but also her income for life. She is certainly not alone.
It’s a nightmare that’s hard to wake from. It will continue until Iowa voters slap Republicans awake at the ballot box.
Bruce Lear lives in Sioux City and recently retired after 38 years of being connected to public schools. BruceLear2419@gmail.com