Guest Columnist

Give local boards authority over school dollars

Phil Hemingway
Phil Hemingway

Benjamin Franklin is attributed with the saying “nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.” I am not here to contradict this well-known historic figure, but we all know there are other certainties in life as well.

One certainty is that every Iowa legislative session starts with a parade of politicians promising to increase school funding in one way or another. Another certainty is that the Iowa City school board, like many others across Iowa, will submit legislative priorities to increase state funding. Next comes the cascading arguments as to where the money will come from.

I propose giving local school boards more flexibility over the major categorical funds they already receive. Removing state mandates will have the same result as an increase in supplemental state aid by as much as 4.5 percent, but without appropriating a penny more of taxes for education. My specific suggestion is to allow local school districts to have greater flexibility with their Teacher Leadership Compensation, or TLC, funding.

The TLC program was established to achieve goals of attracting and retaining effective teachers, promoting collaboration, rewarding professional growth and effective teaching, and improving student achievement by strengthening instruction. The TLC program has now been in effect for a long enough period of time to have longitudinal data to support its purpose. But as I review the body of data collected about this program, there does not appear to be a clear link between this program and an increase in student achievement.

By giving local school boards greater flexibility on how this money is spent, we can avoid the one-size-fits-all standard for education.

It is easy to see that the needs of the smallest school district in Ringgold County are very different from the needs of the largest school district in Polk County. State legislators should recognize that duly elected local school boards know best how to spend these resources in their individual districts with their individual needs.

Some districts need to hire more teachers and this fund could be used to that end. Others face challenges in providing needed curriculum, ranging from basic state-mandated curriculum to highly desirable career and technical education which is needed to meet the skill gap pervasive in our state and nation. Yet other districts could use this to hire more instructors to meet the needs of students who speak languages other than English. Certain districts have challenges retaining senior staff due to economic reasons and this would give them the ability to retain veteran teachers as opposed to a cheaper teacher policy of eliminating senior staff for less expensive, inexperienced ones.

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A significant problem with the TLC system is that it limits student interaction with some of the best instructors in the state. This is because some of the most veteran and accomplished teachers are removed from the classroom and placed into coaching or mentoring roles. Everything we do should maximize, not limit, the exposure of the best instructors we have to our students. Local control of TLC funding will give a tool to districts who can then use this money where it best meets the needs of their individual local districts. Depending on the district, this could mean no change or major changes in how these funds are spent.

This should be one of the easier asks of our state politicians, because greater flexibility in the use of TLC funds will have the net effect of increasing funding for local schools without increasing taxes or taking away from any other state program. This idea should garner broad bipartisan support. Let’s hope this can be a new certainty in life that elected officials will act in the best interest of their constituents and for their state as a whole. I think Benjamin Franklin would have liked that.

My views are mine alone; I do not speak for the ICCSD as a whole.

• Phil Hemingway is a member of the Iowa City school board.

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