DES MOINES — Now with full control of state government, Iowa Republicans might promote school choice options, limit teacher union power and dampen the funding debate over public schools, education policy experts say.
Republicans gained six seats in the Iowa Senate in Tuesday’s elections, flipping control of the chamber. By also maintaining control of the Iowa House and the governorship, this marks the first time since 1998 the GOP has had full control of state government.
The top concern of many education policy experts and advocates looking ahead remains school funding. And while it’s unknown what rate could emerge from the next legislative session, many are hopeful a decision would at least be made on time.
“I certainly don’t have a crystal ball, but I really hope we stay the course and we put students at the center of every conversation we have,” said Tammy Wawro, president of the 34,000-member Iowa State Education Association. “My hope is that we can really set education funding within the time frame of the law, and that it’s set at a rate that our students deserve.”
Decisions about state aid for public schools have been delayed in recent years as lawmakers struggled to agree on a level of increase for schools. They landed on a 2.25 percent increase this year — more than the 2 percent suggested by House Republicans but less than the 2.45 percent recommended by Gov. Terry Branstad or the 4 percent put forward by the then-Democrat-controlled Senate.
“Personally, I kind of like when they have divided government because it forces them to compromise,” said Tom Narak, government relations coordinator for School Administrators of Iowa. “ ... I think this might help them get things done in a more efficient manner — at least they won’t be able to point fingers at the other side.”
Former Iowa Department of Education Director Brad Buck, now the Cedar Rapids Community School District superintendent, said he expects funding levels to stay relatively stable.
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But in other areas, including collective bargaining rights and Educational Savings Accounts, he said he thinks changes will be made.
“Regardless of the party — in this case it happens to be Republicans — when one party has all of the authority, they take it as a directive from the community that Republican ideas and ideals are preferred, at least right now, by Iowans,” said Buck, who served under Branstad. “So we would expect to see things that are traditionally Republican.”
That could include a stripping of Iowa’s collective bargaining law, said Buck and Phil Jeneary, government relations director at the Iowa Association of School Boards.
“I think there are some legislators that say just get rid of it all, sort of like what they did in Wisconsin,” Jeneary said. “And I think there are others who would say, let’s maybe tweak a few things here. ... It’s just going to be how far does each chamber want to go with this.”
Changes to Wisconsin’s laws in 2011 removed the collective bargaining rights of most public sector unions there, while increasing the required payments for health care and retirement accounts. Membership in unions plummeted, the Washington Post reported.
The revisions spurred weeks of protests and a recall effort — which failed — against Republican Gov. Scott Walker, the Wisconsin State Journal reported.
Branstad told The Gazette last week he will be reviewing Iowa’s collective bargaining law to “determine what makes sense” now that power in the Capitol has shifted.
Republicans, including President-elect Donald Trump, have also expressed interest in bolstering choice options for parents when enrolling children in school.
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In Iowa, efforts to introduce Educational Savings Accounts, which are similar to voucher programs, have failed to get past the Senate in the past, Jeneary said.
Those programs typically free up funds on a per-pupil basis — about $6,500 in Iowa — and allow parents to route that money away from their child’s assigned public school and toward other education expenses, including private or home schooling.
Jeneary said districts already suffering from declining enrollment — and, in turn, declining funding — likely would see that amplified should the Legislature introduce a form of vouchers.
“I think there are those challenges and there are those fears out there,” Jeneary said.
In Cedar Rapids, where enrollment has been declining, Buck said the change could negatively impact the public district while bolstering private schools.
“Generally speaking, more choice options lead to reduced enrollment in city centers,” Buck said. “It’s not just a Cedar Rapids phenomenon, but the city centers are most likely to be impacted by those kinds of decisions.”
Education advocates said they’re hopeful the Legislature will work to extend the SAVE tax, which provides school districts with funds for construction needs.
“In the campaigns for election, just about every candidate that was running for office talked about their interest in supporting schools and education,” Narak said. “Now it’s time to get a little bit more specific with them. New folks need time to get up to speed.”