By Mike Haluska
By Mike Haluska

Michael D. Haluska, Superintendent

Decorah Community School District

EDITOR’S NOTE: Over the course of the next several months, Decorah Superintendent Mike Haluska will be writing in-depth analyses of the pertinent “needs” affecting the District – everything from facility issues, to bullying to the way math is taught. The Decorah Community School District recently completed a needs assessment survey that was conducted by the Iowa Association of School Boards. Haluska’s observations and opinions will be published exclusively in Decorah Newspapers.

    On Nov. 16-17, members of the Decorah Board of Education and I attended the annual Iowa Association of School Boards Fall Conference in Des Moines. 

Iowa school board members and superintendents attend the convention for a variety of reasons — the networking opportunities, sessions that feature new and innovative ideas, the possibility of discovering new ways to promote public education, learning how to become a better board member and more. I’ve been attending these for 24 years now, and if this wasn’t the best IASB Conference I’ve attended, it certainly was one of the best. I’m pretty certain our board members would agree with me.

One of the primary threads during the conference addressed the need for support of our public schools, both statewide and nationwide. As a matter of fact, IASB is initiating a new campaign called, “The Promise of Iowa.” As IASB writes, “Public education is the foundation of our democracy and a promise we make as Iowans to our children — that a great education helps dreams come true. Great public schools help children fulfill their promise and are the key to success for our communities, our economy and our state.” After all, public education is such a core value in our state that “Foundation in Education” is even the centerpiece of our state quarter.

While doing my very best to keep above political rhetoric, I want to focus on some of the misnomers circling around public education at both the state and national levels. It’s awfully easy to sit in Decorah amidst one of the finest public school systems in Iowa, but when the efforts of public schools either statewide or nationwide come under attack, we are included in the barrage.

Let me begin with a little information about the American Legislative Exchange Council, better known as ALEC. If you don’t believe there is an ongoing attack on public education, take a look online at ALEC’s agenda.

During the recovery from the stimulus packages that rose from the “Great Recession,” large sums of money that flowed into public schools clearly caught the eye of corporate America. ALEC, as a major proponent of vouchers and charter schools, took direct aim at those dollars.

At a time when public schools are the best they’ve ever been and graduation rates are at an all-time high, this attack by ALEC is intended to convince elected officials and parents at both the state and national levels to abandon public education and opt for charters and online schools funded by public dollars (in Iowa, you can open enroll from any district in the state to online schools through either Clayton Ridge or CAM (Cumberland-Anita-Messina), both of which advertise statewide and both are funded by state dollars). 

Yet what often happens is that these “options” fail and the students return to the public schools to pick up the pieces. Just recently, I was talking with a superintendent friend of mine dealing with this very issue, asking my opinion on how to assign a grade-level to a student who had been a part of this online system for a number of years and is now so far behind his/her peers that he/she would likely be paired with students several years younger. Believe me when I say this is happening right here in Northeast Iowa.

If you don’t think this could happen in Iowa, just this past 2016 legislative session saw the introduction of HF 2284 and SF 240, which would have allowed for so called “educational savings grants” to students in two particular Iowa school districts: Waterloo and Sioux Center.

The sum of $5,854 would have been given to each of 70 students in Sioux Center and 90 students in Waterloo to spend on private school tuition or expenses associated with home schooling, also known as “competent private instruction.” Taken even a step further, any funds not used for such purposes could be kept for future years, or even put into savings accounts and used for postsecondary education.This allocation would have allowed $1,112,260 to be kept out of the hands of public education in Iowa.

Many would find it unwise and unjust to divert public funds to private education or homeschooling, particularly at a time when public education is being continually underfunded. Yet when over 20 percent of the 150 members of the combined Iowa House and Senate either send their children to private schools or home school them, don’t think for a moment this legislation couldn’t be reintroduced.

It simply isn’t true

There are many organizations across the country which would have you believe private schools are consistently outperforming public schools. That simply isn’t the truth. This topic is at the heart of the book written by Christopher and Sarah Lubienski titled, The Public School Advantage. In it, the authors analyze two large-scale, nationally representative datasets that counter the notion that charter schools and private schools are academically superior.

Without going into great detail, after accounting for the demographic differences among different school sector populations, traditional public school students performed just as well in math as did their private school peers. And even though private school children tend to arrive at kindergarten a bit better prepared than their public school peers, public school students make up the difference during elementary school.

Another publication writes of a study from the National Center for Educations Statistics looking at where the U.S. ranks worldwide in reading, math and science. It also looks at a report from the Horace Mann League and the National Superintendents Roundtable, which compares economic equity, social stress, support for families and schools and student and system outcomes in nine G-7 countries. These studies show the proposed “crisis” in public education simply doesn’t exist.

The NCES report shows that in schools with less than 25 percent poverty rates, American children scored higher in reading than any other children in the world. The takeaway is simple: Our middle-class and wealthy public school children are thriving. Poor children are struggling because they come to school with the handicaps poverty imposes. School-choice advocates would argue charter schools are the answer, but are they? In Florida, public school children outscored their private school counterparts and, nationally, charters are outperformed by traditional public schools the majority of the time. If you want more bang for the buck, public schools are where you should put your resources.

Furthermore, research is clear that money spent on addressing the issues of child poverty is the most effective way to increase test scores. Yet, many states are decreasing their spending on education and programs such as Head Start are facing their worst cuts ever.

In examining the research by the Horace Mann League and the National Superintendents Roundtable, the U.S. is, by far, the wealthiest and best-educated of the nine G-7 countries, yet posts some of the worst measures of economic inequality. We have the highest rates of substance abuse and violent deaths, which negatively affect children and their performance in school.

So, how do we counter the efforts of the “anti-public school” groups? In my opinion, our parents and grandparents are our biggest allies. ALEC is looking to move from the state levels to our local governmental levels. That must become our battleground. I believe if policy makers were to listen to educators, parents and students, they would hear the real crisis in public education is the loss of our collective commitment to the common good.  

The report from the Horace Mann League and the National Superintendents Roundtable concludes by saying, “Nobody understands the challenges and shortcomings of American schools better than the people who have dedicated their lives to them.” Yet, rarely are administrators and teachers asked for their expertise and that snub is bipartisan.

With the 2017 Iowa legislative session preparing to drop the gavel in January, now is the time to begin communicating with legislators and the Governor’s Office regarding the need to support public education. You can go to the website for more information on how you can support public education in Iowa. There is even a form you can complete and send to the Iowa Association of School Boards expressing your commitment to public schools.  

I hope you do so. As I recently read, we need to “Treat education as a ticket to an even better future, not as a political football.”