Statehouse candidates questioned on school issues in Mt. Pleasant

MT. PLEASANT — At a work session on Monday evening, the Mt. Pleasant school board invited state Senate and House candidates for a legislative forum.

District 84 state representative candidates Joe Mitchell and Jeff Fager and Iowa Senate District 42 candidates Rich Taylor and Jeff Reichman answered a set of questions from the board.

When asked what role the Legislature plays in public education, Fager said he believed it needed to “provide adequate support to schools and teachers … and then get out of the way.”

“Professionals do not need politicians coming in and saying, ‘Well you really need to teach it this way,’” Fager said. The state representative candidate pointed to standardized testing as a way politicians have interfered with teaching in the classroom.

Fager added he felt the Legislature had not adequately provided funding to keep up with inflation rates through state supplemental aid. The candidate added the failure to do so particularly “penalizes” rural districts whose fixed costs such as transportation, are higher than those of urban districts.

Mitchell, the incumbent, said he felt the Legislature continues to prioritize education and has in recent years dedicated “60 percent of its budget on education.”

The state representative pointed to Iowa’s place in the country with “No. 1 graduate rates and highest ACT scores” as how well the education system in the state is doing.

Mitchell added he hopes to continue to “lift up teachers” and believes the state should be doing more to encourage students to consider a career in education.

Reichman, whose platform is centered on economic development, said he felt the state needs to prepare students for trade and technical programs as much as it prepares them for college.

“Kids need to be ready for the world,” he said.

Reichman added he has seen a return of manufacturing to the United States and reported statistics that said there would be a gap of 1 million trade jobs in the country if students were not prepared for those technical positions.

State Sen. Rich Taylor echoed Fager’s comments and said the Legislature should “leave education to teachers.”

“It has no place making the rules … it’s different for every community,” Taylor said.

Taylor added he felt the Legislature’s responsibility was to provide adequate funding to districts. Taylor touched on inflation rates and how districts make up gaps from property taxes.

“It shouldn’t’ just be on the property taxes, it should come from the state. I know we threw about $200 million dollars to schools last year — that wasn’t enough. We need to do better,” Taylor said.

As districts’ certified enrollment numbers come in, Superintendent John Henriksen said many districts are worried about how dramatic drops in enrollment, in large part due to the pandemic, would affect district funding from the state, which is tied to how many students schools serve.

“Across the state, there was a decrease of almost 10 percent. In Mt. Pleasant, we’re down 44 students,” Henriksen said.

The superintendent asked what the candidates expect the Legislature to do to help districts facing this issue.

Reichman stressed the importance of getting kids “back to school” and claimed students “have a greater likelihood of being injured or killed in an accident than actually contracting COVID at school and should it come to that.”

“We need to be getting these kids and getting back to what normal was,” Reichman said.

Reichman added he has visited families doing home schooling and said it is “probably good in some situations and … not the greatest” in others.

Taylor said he would work to allow districts to recertify numbers in the spring when students who originally chose to home-school may come back. Taylor also suggested more oversight on home schooling to ensure children are receiving the education they need.

Fager said he would want the Legislature to “provide flexibility” and respond to needs on a local basis.

“What are the school buildings like in this school district? What is the student-teacher ratio like at different grade levels? Provide as much flexibility to meet the needs as possible,” Fager said.

Mitchell echoed Taylor’s suggestion that districts be allowed to recertify numbers at a later date. He said because the issue is a statewide problem, he anticipates it will be a hot topic for the Legislature during the upcoming legislative session set to begin in January.

“The overwhelming parents I’ve talked to want their kids in school and learn from a professional in the classroom,” Mitchell said.

Mitchell added he felt remote and distance learning “isn’t sustainable” and the state should be making an effort to get kids “back in school.”