It’s Time Legislators Get an Education, from Students

Earlier this spring, I went with over 250 other students and educators to the Iowa Capitol as part of the Student Voices Matter Rally. I helped organize this rally as president-elect of the Iowa Student Learning Institute, a student organization dedicated to revolutionizing Iowa’s approach to education through the power of student voice. We kicked off the day with speeches from students who have acted on issues they care about as well as an appearance by Governor Branstad and Lt. Governor Reynolds. Then we spent the afternoon inside the Capitol talking to lawmakers. Our goal was to connect students to their legislators so they could learn about the legislative process and advocate for issues that matter to them. These conversations were very powerful: It was incredible to see so many students talking directly to lawmakers- and to see lawmakers listening and engaging in honest dialogue about real issues. However, I was struck in our conversations with legislators by some of the misconceptions that they had about education and learning. Before we approached our representatives, my group (which consisted of students from Waukee, South Hamilton, and Central Lee school districts) came up with a general mix of questions about school funding. One of the students main concerns were that in their elementary schools, the art teacher had been cut and they were either having teachers teach art in the classroom or having a middle school art teacher work half a day in each school. Another concern they had was that many electives were being cut: classes like workshop and family consumer sciences, to name a few. Like many other schools, Waukee has started to cut their talented and gifted or extended learning programs. At one recent Waukee school board meeting to discuss the future budget board members called the cuts of those teachers “trimming the fat”, quite an insensitive statement to make when the teachers who teach those classes were actually sitting at the board meeting to find out whether or not they will have a job next year. One of our main goals was to find out what is prioritized over education and why. One of our questions was “How does Iowa compare to other states on spending in education?” When we put this question to Representative Bacon, a Republican from Webster City, his response was this: “Well, we aren’t at the top and we aren’t on the bottom, but we are on top for the percentage of students who stay in Iowa from kindergarten to graduation.” Aside from the fact that the second part of the Representative’s answer had nothing to do with our question, his response was inconsistent with the stated priorities of his own party. When Governor Branstad spoke earlier in the morning, he said he wants to get Iowa back at #1 in education in the U.S. I, however, don’t understand how we can expect to be first in education if we rank 27th in per-pupil education expenditures. Talk about your lofty vision for education all you want- if your commitment to education is not reflected in your spending priorities, then your priorities are not in education. We need to put our money where our mouth is. Representative Bacon talked about how schools are taking core classes and expanding them into electives. The Representative also said that he wants his kids to be learning more facts in school and “be learning what capitalism and socialism are.” He doesn’t like that they come home with questions like “how do you feel about this or that?” I challenged him by asking what he would rather they be asking since those seem to be deeper level questions, to which he responded “I just think schools shouldn’t be so focused on making sure everyone is alright and happy and they should focus more on teaching facts.” I countered that we learned about capitalism and socialism in economics, which is an elective. He said “Why can’t they just teach that in social studies?” Unfortunately for Representative Bacon, we live in a world in which facts are instantly accessible almost everywhere. Knowing facts does not qualify you for many jobs in the 21st century. On the contrary, what matters is what you can do with facts, whether you can think critically about them and use them to innovate, create, and discover. School needs to expose us to a diversity of new ideas, but it should also invite us to challenge those ideas, and yes, to think deeply and figure out for ourselves how we feel about ideas like socialism and capitalism. Talking to legislators like Representative Bacon was a wonderful opportunity to engage in meaningful dialogue, but it was also unsettling. Before legislators make decisions about the future of schools, they need to understand the reality of education in today’s world. They need to understand the consequences of their spending decisions. And they need to understand that schools must do more than “teach facts” to prepare students to be successful. I challenge Representative Bacon and all of his colleagues to visit schools in their district and listen to students’ perspectives on education. We have been ignored for too long, and clearly our voice is needed.