Rep. Dustin Hite and Rep. Ras Smith

Feb 12, 2021  | 27 min  | Ep 4826 | Podcast | Transcript

Podcast

On this edition of Iowa Press, Rep. Dustin Hite (R-New Sharon), chair of the House Education Committee, and Rep. Ras Smith (D-Waterloo), ranking member of the House Education Committee, discuss funding and other education-related legislation as Iowa schools continue to deal with challenges from the coronavirus pandemic. 

Kay Henderson, news director for Radio Iowa, hosts and moderates the discussion. Joining Henderson at the Iowa Press table are Erin Murphy, Des Moines bureau chief for Lee Enterprises, and Katarina Sostaric, state government reporter for Iowa Public Radio.

Program support provided by: Associated General Contractors of Iowa, Iowa Bankers Association and FUELIowa.

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Education issues ranging from return to learn and school funding have dominated the headlines in Iowa. We sit down with a pair of Education Committee leaders in the Iowa House on this edition of Iowa Press.

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Funding for Iowa Press was provided by Friends, the Iowa PBS Foundation. The Associated General Contractors of Iowa, the public's partner in building Iowa's highway, bridge and municipal utility infrastructure. Iowa PBS is supported in part by Wells Fargo. Fuel Iowa is a voice and a resource for Iowa's fuel industry. Our members offer a diverse range of products including fuel, grocery and convenience items. They help keep Iowans on the move in rural and urban communities. Together we Fuel Iowa. Small businesses are the backbone of Iowa's communities and they are backed by Iowa banks. With advice, loans and financial services, banks across Iowa are committed to showing small businesses the way to a stronger tomorrow. Learn more at IowaBankers.com.

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For decades Iowa Press has brought you political leaders and newsmakers from across Iowa and beyond. Celebrating nearly 50 years of broadcast excellence on statewide Iowa PBS, this is the Friday, February 12 edition of Iowa Press. Here is Kay Henderson.

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Henderson: The Iowa legislative session began on January 11th. The past month has been dominated by discussion of education issues. So we have invited two members of the Iowa House Education Committee to discuss today. Representative Ras Smith, a democrat from Waterloo, is the ranking member of the House Education Committee and Representative Dustin Hite, a republican from New Sharon is the Chairman of the Committee. Gentlemen, welcome to Iowa Press.

Thank you.

Thank you for having me.

Henderson: Journalists at the table are, Katarina Sostaric, Statehouse Reporter for Iowa Public Radio and Erin Murphy, he is the Des Moines Bureau Chief for Lee Enterprises.

Murphy: Representative Hite, on Monday schools that were not already will be back in full-time in-person learning because of a new state law that was passed earlier this session. Why did republicans feel it was important to do that and not let school boards, local school boards decide what schedule was best for their students?

Hite: Well, Erin, this year in the campaign we heard a lot from parents that wanted their kids back in school and school districts were not letting those kids go back to school. We also heard from the experts about all of the education gap that has been developing over this COVID thing. And so we thought that it was important that parents have the option to send their kids back to school.

Murphy: For some districts that had a hybrid option, for example, they no longer have that because of this new requirement. Did it have an unintended consequence of also eliminated some choice in some districts?

Hite: Well, again, that part right there would have been up to the school districts and if school districts decided to get rid of the hybrid that is totally up to the school districts. What we didn't also want to do is then start mandating all three ways, online, hybrid and in-person, and create an even bigger burden on public schools.

Murphy: Representative Smith, what is wrong with parents and students at least having that option to be in school full-time?

Smith: Well, I don't think there's anything wrong with that. I think our goal has always been to get kids back to school safely and safely being the key word. We know that COVID mitigation in some buildings is difficult, we know that it's costly, and our efforts were to make sure that schools had those three different options. Democrats proposed an amendment to ensure that, yes we were going to be mandating that you have a 100% in-person option, but we also wanted there to still by that hybrid option that so many parents and families have benefited from. And so for us it was important to provide as many options as possible. I will agree with Representative Hite that that is burdensome. We know our teachers and educators have gone above and beyond. But if we're talking about parent option and parent choice it doesn't make sense for us to say we're giving parent choice but then to do away with some of those choices due to the burden.

Murphy: Representative Hite, to that point that it gets to the whole one size fits all issue, it may be easier to manage the student population in a smaller maybe rural area school versus a school building in Des Moines or Davenport or Waterloo with a bigger student population the more you open that up. And to be clear, this isn't requiring schools to go back 100% in-person, it's just giving students the option. But the more people that take that option, the more people are in school buildings and it becomes more difficult to keep students socially distanced doesn't it?

Hite: Well, I don't think so. Number one, we have seen many of our larger districts in the state of Iowa bringing those kids back. And so they have been able to do it. I think it is certainly possible that other large school districts can do it. The other thing that we hear all the time is we have classrooms of 50 students and we can't get 50 students in there. Well, you go to the smaller schools and we have classrooms for 20 students and I have a teacher in my district who is telling me I've got 26 students in that classroom. So many of the same issues, maybe on a smaller scale, but our smaller schools have been able to do it and even some of our larger schools have been able to do it. So we certainly think it's not unreasonable.

Sostaric: House republicans passed a bill that would end limits on student transfers out of five school districts in the state. These plans were in place to maintain economic and language diversity and this bill would take those away. Representative Smith, one of those districts is Waterloo. How will this affect a district that you represent?

Smith: Well, I think -- so our school districts were utilizing data to show what was best for student outcomes. And what the data shows is that a diverse learning environment is best for all students whether you're on the high end of the socioeconomic rung or the lower end of the socioeconomic rung. For us it doesn't make sense to ban a voluntary practice. There's only five school districts that were utilizing this of the roughly 327 districts that exist in the state of Iowa. So we're talking about a small percentage of school districts that were impacted. But I do think this is government overreach. These districts were making decisions based on what is best for the student population.

Henderson: Representative Hite?

Hite: Well, we've seen here, we've gotten stories out of the Des Moines school district about the students that have been denied, students that were bullied, assaulted and simply students that weren't comfortable in the larger school district. Myself, I would have been one of those had I lived in Des Moines. But to the point of it being voluntary, it's voluntary for the school but it's not voluntary for the students. Many of the students, the parents, they want to go to a different school and we think that they should have that option, just like all the other 322 districts were allowing.

Henderson: So we have mentioned that Des Moines and Waterloo are affected. For viewers who aren't familiar, what are the other three districts?

Hite: So, the other three districts, Des Moines, Waterloo, Davenport, Postville and West Liberty.

Murphy: Representative Smith, to that, to the families with students who want the option to go to another school in those districts, what recourse do they have?

Smith: There are open enrollment options that exist. I think some of the variables that Representative Hite listed are all reasons that students can open enroll. If you're being bullied then you can leave that school, if you're enrolled in a failing school, you can leave that school. So I don't think that those are actually applicable when it comes to these circumstances that we're describing here.

Murphy: Representative Hite, this diversity plan proposal was also a part of Governor Reynolds' larger school choice legislation. House republicans chose to tackle that issue specifically, separately in legislation, rather than in the Governor's bill. Why was that?

Hite: That particular issue is probably because we already had that one going, that was already something we were going to do before the Governor put it in her plan, we already had that in place, so we just ran with it.

Murphy: Is that any indication that there's more support for that element than there is for other elements of the Governor's bill?

Hite: Well, the Governor's bill is a large bill and I think what we're planning to do in the House is to kind of divide it up because there's lot of different sections, certain ones are a little bit more controversial than others. For example, the Student First scholarships is probably the one that we've heard the most about. You get all the way to the very end where it includes languages that school districts are supposed to be looking out for the kids. I don't know that that's controversial at all. So I think we're going to look at maybe doing it in pieces just so that we can tackle all those different issues one at a time.

Murphy: Representative Smith, is there anything in the Governor's bill -- it talks about expanding charter schools, Representative Hite mentioned the scholarships -- is there anything in there that House democrats are willing to support?

Smith: I think that is yet to be seen. I'm always open to having robust conversations about what improves the quality of education in the state. But first and foremost, I want to protect funds for public schools. I think for me that is the most important thing. We've seen so many rural school consolidations I'm concerned that our schools are going to become half of the alphabet. I talked about my wife graduating from Ackley-Geneva-Wellsburgh-Steamboat Rock and that was in 2006. I'm afraid that we'll add another 10 letters onto that if we divert funds from our public schools. So for me, right now my main focus is on ensuring that public dollars go to public schools and that our kids have a safe learning environment.

Henderson: Representative Hite, the Governor said a few days ago that she needs to educate some of the republicans who aren't yet on board. What does she need to educate you about?

Hite: Well, I think first and foremost when you talk about the Student First scholarship program there's a lot of misconceptions. We hear that number, it's going to cost $50 million, and that's just simply not true. The estimate from LSA was a little bit less than $3 million because it applies to 34 school districts and not all of those students are going to leave. I think that is probably one topic where the Governor wants to educate not only House republicans but I think Iowans.

Henderson: Let's talk about those 34 districts. Often they have been referred to during debate in the legislature as failing. Why are they failing?

Hite: I think there's a whole host of reasons. Now one thing, Kay, I've never said they're failing, I don't necessarily think that that's a good way to talk about our school districts. Some of them struggle in certain areas, I think that is a better way to say it. But there's a whole host of reasons whether it is they have difficult challenges with the population that they serve or just other reasons, I think there's probably a whole host of reasons.

Sostaric: House republicans are proposing additional funding for schools for COVID-related expenses but would give a smaller share to districts that were either hybrid or virtual. And aside from the Des Moines Public School District, there are several districts that were hybrid but in compliance with the Governor's orders. Is it fair to give districts that were in compliance less money than other districts?

Hite: So, what we are looking at and the reason we are proposing what we're proposing is we're trying to help schools with those added costs of bringing kids back. That's all this is. It's not a reward. It's not a punishment. It's about helping schools with those added costs. And we believe that when you have kids in school there were added costs whether it was added cleaning, PPE, increased substitute costs, increased bus driver costs, transportation costs, all of those things that just happened because they brought kids in. That's what we're trying to do and that is why we pegged it to schools that brought kids into school.

Sostaric: Representative Smith, does he have a point that those schools that were in-person more have more costs that they need more funding for?

Smith: No, I would disagree. I think that for us to the focus should be ensuring that there is equity in our allocation of dollars. I do think that the thought process of this being not punitive is not realistic. I think if you're a school district who gets less funding then it is a consequence, it is a punitive measure by the state. So if we're going to have dollars allocated for those school districts, I think we should do it per capita. I think that makes sense for us to support our school districts. If students are there in-person whether it's 10 students or 20 students, the cleaning, you're going to clean every desk, you're going to disinfect the entire building, the entire lunch room and so I don't think that that measure is actually an accurate determination of the dollars that should be spent in schools if you have students in there in-person or hybrid.

Henderson: Speaking of the dollars spent in school, you folks on Thursday evening took a vote that would provide 2.4% increase in the general state aid that is sent to schools that is sent on a per pupil basis. Representative Hite, when you go home and maybe have a forum and somebody asks you about that, how will you explain that vote?

Hite: That to me is a very, very easy vote to say. We, republicans, House republicans have continually invested in our schools, over almost $1 billion in the last 10 years and I think this is just an example of that. Now, one of the other things that I think this last election showed us is that Iowans also appreciated us being in a strong financial point in the state. And I think my constituents understand that we can't just spend whatever money we want and so we have to be responsible in that. And so an additional $36 million to our public schools because in addition we also increased the equity by $10, bought that down. So me that is a really easy thing to sell.

Henderson; Representative Smith?

Smith; Well, I think having money in the bank is only helpful if you're going to spend it on something, right. If this is not a rainy day I don't know what is. And for me we have a lot of -- one of the basis' for having students return to school 100% in-person were because of some of the underlying issues that were taking place during COVID whether that be increased domestic abuse, whether we saw higher rates of food insecurity, all of those things unfortunately they do cost to provide those services to students. So, House democrats first and foremost, we pushed for an amendment that would make sure our funding levels were that of equal to last year. So I think dropping off by about $16 million is not sufficient and the reason that our school districts across the state are not being as successful as we would like is because they have been starved of resources for years and years and years. Just because you're feeding the calf doesn't mean you're feeding it enough to grow.

Henderson: Representative Hite?

Hite: First off, it's not less money than last year, it's a smaller increase on the total dollar side. But in addition to the issues with schools dealing with COVID, we have other things. One of the things near and dear to my heart is our court system. They are asking for $9 million to address COVID costs and we have those throughout the state. And so as we go forward we need to keep that in the back of our mind. One of the things that we are trying to do and spend down some of that surplus money is using that one-time supplement of $30 million to go to schools and taking out of our ending fund balance.

Smith: To that point though, we're talking about responsible funding. One-time funding is one of the principles that is not responsible funding. So we should make sure our dollar allocation is something that we can replicate year after year after year. And if we're talking about a percent increase, but when we talk about budget guarantee and raising property taxes, per Iowa law school districts are guaranteed 101% of the funding that they received last year. So if our increase is less than it was the year prior, therefore those districts go on budget guarantee and local property taxes can't be raised.

Murphy: Representative Smith, you this past week sat on a subcommittee hearing on legislation that would ban school districts from teaching based off of the 1619 Project by the New York Times that dealt with slavery and its impact at the forming of our country. One of the journalists who worked on that project is from Waterloo. I'm wondering your take on that legislation and what concerns you may have with it.

Smith: So, that was one of the hardest things I've had to sit through in my time in the legislature. I found a lot of the narrative to be fairly disrespectful. One of the comments was that the Democratic Party was a party of slave masters. And so I pushed back against that narrative because that's disrespectful and it's interesting because if you knew who I was you would know how unrighteously false that was and so that is first and foremost, I think that's important to get that out. But secondly, I think that the state has been overreaching into determining curriculum. It's just part of the trend that we've seen with the punitive acts of our state saying we're going to defund you if you do this, we're going to defund you if you do this, we're going to defund you if you do this. The role of government is to support and empower our institutions to be great, to support and empower our people to be the best that they can. The 1619 curriculum or Project is a series of essays that is meant to help our students be critical thinkers. If our students are unable to really talk about what has taken place or understand the lineage or the ancestry of people that look like me then we're in a difficult place and may repeat history and I'm nervous about the trend that we're seeing across this country.

Murphy: And I want to make clear the individual who made that assertion was a member of the public, not a fellow legislation.

Smith: Yes, not a member of the general body.

Murphy: What do the concerns raised by Representative Skyler Wheeler, who brought that bill about as he noted some historians have raised concerns about perhaps some inaccuracies in that Project and Representative Wheeler's point is we shouldn't be teaching our children off of something that may be, he may be exaggerated saying riddled with inaccuracies, but has some elements that historians have had issues with. What do you say to that?

Smith: I think any time we see those inaccuracies -- it's important that our students have accurate information. But I also think it's important that our students have accurate information about the issue of this country. And I can tell you there is no book that talks about, no historical book that talks about how slaves built the White House. We still teach curriculum talking about Christopher Columbus discovering America. We know that is not true. But those are things that our students are still taught. So I do believe if we're going to talk about those inaccuracies let's do so in a holistic way.

Murphy: Representative Hite, is this bill going to get a hearing in your committee?

Hite: I think we're going to have conversations. For me, the reason why this is an issue is because exactly what you said, Erin. Several prominent, including left-leaning, historians have come out and said this is just bad history. And to use it as the history curriculum, I think that is the concern that we're hearing. Now, to Representative Smith's point, there is also concern that us dictating what schools should and should not teach maybe starts to get out of line. And so those are the conversations that we have to have. But I think first and foremost the concern is the underlying accuracy, the underlying correctness of this history. I don't think anybody here believes or anybody in my caucus believes that we shouldn't talk about slavery or we shouldn't talk about the bad things that have occurred in our country. There's lots of things that have not been good in our country and in our state that we don't -- one in my district, the Hollander Fires, I'm guessing nobody around here has ever heard about those. But we had churches and schools burn because they were Dutch. And we had a pastor in my own town, this is about 100 years ago, had dynamite outside of his house and it didn't go off because the fuse didn't go, but that is Iowa history that isn't taught in school. So I think absolutely we need to talk about the bad things, but we need to talk about them accurately.

Sostaric: Representative Hite, do you feel this bill to ban the teaching of the 1619 Project as well as the plan to end voluntary diversity plans at school districts, there were these widespread, a widespread call for racial justice over this past summer, do you feel that these things might seem tone deaf to those calls for moving down that march towards racial equity?

Hite: Absolutely not. Like I said, with the 1619 Project the concern is that historians have told us it's not good and that is why we have an issue with it. Maybe there is a different way we can go about it so that we aren't trampling on schools because I think Representative Smith's point is right, we need to have those conversations, we want our kids to have those conversations, we want our kids to know everything about our history. And to the voluntary diversity plans, all you've got to do is look at the students that want in and out. And I would point out that voluntary diversity plans are by law prohibited to concern race. It can't be race. And so the ones that they had are socioeconomic status and English as a language learner status. But no, I certainly don't.

Sostaric: The House Education Committee passed a bill that would ban tenure at the Regents universities. University representatives as well as business groups say this would make Iowa an educational backwater, it would diminish external research funding that comes in, have a very negative economic impact on the state. Why do you feel that this was important to pass out of the House Education Committee?

Hite: So, one thing that we've seen during this last year is we've seen on our college campuses, on our Regents university's campuses, what I believe is a suppression of conservative speech. If we have been paying attention to the Government Oversight Committee, they have been talking about a dental student at the University of Iowa, Michael Brase, and he was going to be brought in on disciplinary hearings because he basically pushed back against some thought of the dental school being, that came out and disagreed with the Trump administration. And so we've seen that consistently. We saw that with the Iowa State professor that said in her syllabus, if you espouse basically conservative beliefs, you're not going to be welcome in my class. And so one of the concerns that we have is that students with conservative political ideology are being shut out of our Regents institutions. And one of those things that we think is maybe fueling that is professors' ability to basically stay on the job. We asked the Regents at the subcommittee, how many people have lost tenure? And when we were debating the tenure bill in the Education Committee I leaned over to Representative Skyler Wheeler who was managing the bill and I said, have they ever answered that? And the answer is, no they haven't. And so those are things that the Regents have told us about why maybe we need to look at maybe doing it a little bit different. But I think the concept is certainly important and, again, it's not to the floor yet. We can certainly look at doing things a little bit different.

Sostaric: Representative Smith?

Smith: I think tenure is extremely important. Right now the U of I is looking for a President, the U of I is looking for a Provost and that makes it extremely difficult to hire qualified individuals. If Iowa were to get rid of tenure we'd be the only state in the nation without. But we also have to think about the economic impact. We're talking about billions of dollars that come into this state. The University of Iowa Veterinary Lab, which is run by tenured researchers, is how we stopped the African swine flu from spreading across this state. The U of I, they helped develop the vaccine for COVID-19. That is by tenured research professors. At the University of Northern Iowa we're talking about metalcasting that is some of the best in the world that helps manufacturers like John Deere. Tenure is important because the research that these individuals bring into our state is valuable and helps to make sure that Iowa continues to lead forward. Now, I will agree free speech is important, I believe in protecting free speech, but we also had incidents where I think it was the Iowa State Student Republicans talked about grabbing their guns and there were no repercussions. So there is free speech but when free speech becomes violent it is time for the state to step in and make sure we address those things. And I'm yet to hear the majority party do so. But I'll always denounce hated, I will always denounce acts of violence. And I think we have to make sure we're talking about free speech being acknowledged, that those things exist, and we have to stomp those out when they come up.

Murphy: Representative Hite, republicans have advanced legislation that would require students to use bathrooms based on their physical gender, basically precluding transgender Iowans from using the bathroom of the gender that they identify with. Is that something that is going to move in the House? And why is that necessary?

Hite: So yeah, just to be clear, that was in the Senate, not in the House. I've got a couple of bills that deal with that issue in my committee and I haven't assigned them a subcommittee yet. And the reason I haven't assigned them a subcommittee is not because I don't understand the issues of the proponents of those bills, but I also understand the issues on the other sides of those bills. And I think when we talk about topics like this we have to be extremely careful that what we are doing does not come across as hateful. And that is what I'm always concerned in these particular issues. So those bills have not been assigned a subcommittee in my committee and I don't necessarily believe that that's probably going to happen any time soon, if ever, this session.

Henderson: We have less than a minute left. Students had a hard time dealing with online learning when it started in March. There has been really no discussion of summer school. Just real quickly, Representative Hite, will republicans help Iowa school districts have summer school so kids can catch up?

Hite: That again is, like you said, is not a discussion that we've had. Certainly we're willing to do it and look at what we can or maybe changes that are necessary to allow that to happen.

Henderson: Yes or no to summer school?

Smith: I think if we allocate the resources it's necessary. We've seen the COVID slide and I think it's important to address that so our students are globally competitive going into the future.

Henderson: Gentlemen, thanks for sharing your views today, we appreciate your time.

Thank you.

Henderson: That's it for this edition of Iowa Press. Join us again next week at 7:30 on Friday and Noon on Sunday. For everyone at Iowa PBS, thanks for watching.

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Funding for Iowa Press was provided by Friends, the Iowa PBS Foundation. The Associated General Contractors of Iowa, the public's partner in building Iowa's highway, bridge and municipal utility infrastructure. Iowa PBS is supported in part by Wells Fargo. Fuel Iowa is a voice and a resource for Iowa's fuel industry. Our members offer a diverse range of products including fuel, grocery and convenience items. They help keep Iowans on the move in rural and urban communities. Together we Fuel Iowa. Small businesses are the backbone of Iowa's communities and they are backed by Iowa banks. With advice, loans and financial services, banks across Iowa are committed to showing small businesses the way to a stronger tomorrow. Learn more at IowaBankers.com.

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