After three days of intense debate, on Thursday I was proud to vote for public sector collective bargaining reform. I voted for this bill for one overriding reason: to save Iowa’s public schools.
Iowa’s collective bargaining law has hurt our schools. Since passage in the early 1970’s, this law’s lack of teeth regarding arbitration has forced school districts to accept annual collective bargaining settlements well above what the districts received in revenue. Whether the state increased K-12 funding annually by 1%, 2%, 4% or even 6% didn’t matter, as the structure of Iowa’s law ensured that settlement amounts were greater than the districts took in. Given that 80-85% of a school district’s expenses are in that collective bargaining agreement, this was simply unsustainable.
As an example, the four school districts I represent (Marion, Linn-Mar, Cedar Rapids, College Community) have received revenue increases the past 2 years of 2.25% and 1.25%, well above the inflation rate and in line with the average .5% annual increase above inflation that our districts have gotten since the early 70’s. Yet all four of those districts had collectively bargained annual increases of approximately 3.5%. No organization, whether an Iowa family, a non-profit, a private company or a school district can survive by perennially increasing expenses by 1%-2.25% beyond revenue. So how did these districts manage, given that expenses were increasing beyond revenue? They did so by firing new teachers, cutting programs, slowing hiring, and taking other actions to afford the settlements. The results were larger classroom sizes, fewer educational options for our kids, and stressed-out teachers.
I don’t blame anyone or any group for this unsustainable circumstance. Union bosses are doing what union bosses do, looking out for their members. Superintendents are doing what superintendents do, leading their districts in a fiscally responsible way to better educate our kids. School boards are doing what school boards do, overseeing an educational enterprise the best they can within the law. Teachers are doing what teachers do, selflessly serving our kids with an intense desire to help kids learn. Parents are doing what parents do, paying taxes and entrusting their children to a system they expect will provide a top notch education. And legislators are doing what legislators do, increasing spending for K-12 in real terms with the intention of such increases leading to educational improvements.
So if everyone is doing what they should do, why is the system so broken? It starts with a flawed arbitration law, which I’ll illustrate in a real-world example.
Imagine that a school district and a union begin their annual collective bargaining. The state passes a 2.25% increase for K-12. The school district then puts an offer on the table of a 2% increase and the union asks for 4%. If the parties can’t agree, they go to mediation and then arbitration. Under current law, the arbiter is limited in what he or she may consider. In addition to the two offers, the arbiter considers 2 primary things: comparable increases across the state & previous agreements. To stack the deck in arbitration, union bosses in Des Moines use a “Rule of 100” strategy. They allow unions in pro-labor districts to bargain while restricting those in less labor-friendly districts to delay. Once they get 100 of the 333 school districts with high settlements, say an average of 3.5%, they give the unions in less labor-friendly districts the green light to bargain.
These districts are now stuck. If they don’t agree to something near 3.5%, which is both the state precedent for comparables and close to last year’s settlement, then they’ll go to arbitration. In arbitration, the arbiter may only select one of the two proposals. Given that the comparables and previous year settlements are closer to the union’s offer of 4%, the arbiter will lock the district in with a 4% settlement. Knowing that the deck is stacked against them, the district settles for 3.5%, well above the 2.25% increase they’re receiving. This goes on year after year, inflating settlements beyond whatever the state passes for K-12 increases. It is unsustainable and is hurting our schools.
I’m proud that my legislative colleagues and I are finally saying, “No more!” We’re changing binding arbitration so that the highest settlement an arbiter may award is the lowest of the Midwest Consumer Price Index or 3%. This ensures that our teachers will never get less than a cost of living increase but it rebalances the scales so that school districts have greater leverage to control costs.
The benefits of this change are many. Rather than being forced to cut teachers and programs to balance their budgets, school districts will now have more money available to hire new teachers and create new programs, decreasing class sizes and increasing educational opportunities. Combined with our upcoming passage of home rule, they’ll have the authority to innovate, to better attract and retain top teachers in science and math, and to create student-centered literacy programs, among other things. In sum, we’ll improve education and more effectively use hard-earned taxpayer dollars.
Before the Governor has even signed this reform, it’s having a positive effect on my school districts back home, most of which settled this week. The leverage of this bill has ensured that the settlements are still fair increases but significantly more affordable than previous ones. This will allow our districts to improve education in a measurable way.
I look forward to the day in the future, when Iowa is once again the top state in the nation in education, to look back at this vote and know that I did my part for my kids, grandkids, and all Iowans.