DES MOINES — Isaiah McGee fired off an email on Feb. 19 to Gov. Terry Branstad’s top education policy people and the governor’s legislative liaisons.
“Are we clear if there is support for both amendment h1020 AND h1021?” McGee wrote to a list that included Department of Education Director Jason Glass, the governor's Special Assistant for Education Linda Fandel and Adam Gregg, the governor’s lobbyist with the General Assembly.
Branstad’s education reform bill had just been through its initial run in the Legislature, and lawmakers were trying to attach amendments for everything from raising starting teacher pay to $45,000 a year to giving local school boards more authority over their operations.
The two McGee, one of three Department of Education lobbyists working on the bill, asked about dealt with homeschoolers in Iowa.
The Branstad administration had misgivings about the amendments, emails obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request show, but by May, the governor was firmly on board. So were the major education groups — if begrudgingly — as were the Democrats who control the state Senate. The change was thanks to the willingness of key House Republicans to scuttle the education bill if homeschool reform was not part of the education reform package.
“I don’t know there was one top issue for us. They were all important,” said House Speaker Kraig Paulsen, R-Hiawatha, one of 10 Iowa lawmakers identified by Iowa’s largest homeschool association who was either homeschooled or homeschooled their children. “We made it clear that this was important to us.”
A key constituency
Homeschoolers made up only 2.3 percent of the state’s school-age population at the start of the 2012-2013 school year.
But homeschool parents are extremely active and well-organized, which allows them to wield influence beyond their numbers, particularly in the Republican Party.
“Most of our members are volunteers for campaigns and are very involved politically,” said Bill Gustoff, chief lobbyist for the Network of Iowa Christian Home Educators.
The group, also known as NICHE, was founded in 1992 in response to an Iowa Supreme Court ruling that parents found guilty of truancy could be charged with child abuse. It’s been the lead advocate for homeschoolers in Iowa since.
A 2004 study conducted by National Home Education Research Institute of 7,000 adults compared the political involvement of those who were homeschooled and the general U.S. population. It found that 76 percent of homeschooled 18 to 24 year olds had voted in the most recent election compared to 29 percent of the U.S. population.
Among those between 25 and 39, a total of 95 percent of homeschoolers had voted compared with 40 percent of the general population.
Homeschoolers also were more likely to volunteer to write, volunteer or sign petitions on behalf of candidates and were more likely to volunteer for, or be members of, community organizations than the general U.S. population.
These types of activists are so important in grassroots politics that the alleged theft of an email list of Christian homeschool parents is central to the still unresolved complaints against Sen. Kent Sorenson, R-Milo.
“They are a very vocal, very voting part of the education debate,” said Kathy Christie, vice president, Knowledge Management & Dissemination at Education Commission of the States, who follows education policy across the country.
“I don’t think it’s just religious conservatives like it once was,” Christie said. “It’s folks who think they can do better with their kids than the schools can do with their kids. Obviously, it’s a huge commitment, so they are very sensitive to being able to do that.”
Still, Iowa’s homeschool advocates had a mixed record in getting their legislative priorities accomplished. Several times, they’ve pushed legislation that would, for example, loosen government oversight or allow homeschool parents to teach driver’s education, but they came up short.
With education reform being a top priority of the 2013 session and the top Republican in the House of Representatives a homeschool parent, Gustoff saw an opportunity time for NICHE to move on these, and other, priorities.
He was right.
“This is an educationally problematic policy change. It goes beyond the rights of the parents to homeschool their children to saying those parents have no obligation to demonstrate academic growth of those children,” Ryan Wise wrote in a March email distributed to Fandel, Glass, Gregg and others, about a new homeschool initiative called “private instruction.”
Wise is the Department of Education official who facilitated the development of the teacher leadership and compensation plan, which was the centerpiece of this year’s education reform bill. He also was critical of the “independent instruction” amendment championed by NICHE.
“This is a substantial redefinition of homeschooling that moves far beyond the rights of parents to educate their own children,” Wise wrote. "This removes any meaningful role of state government in guaranteeing the education of the children of the state."
He marked both proposals with a “2” on a scale of 1 to 5, denoting the department was “not supportive” of the changes.
The Branstad administration figured House Republicans would push for more accountability in the reform package — stricter evaluations for teachers, more pay-for-performance incentives — and the homeschool amendments would be used as bargaining chips in negotiations with the Democratic-controlled Senate. But in the House, the opposite was true.
“We underestimated how much Speaker Paulsen and the House Republicans, their interest in the homeschool components versus the accountability components,” Glass said during an interview before he left for his new job in Colorado. “Turns out they were really interested in moving those homeschool elements; they were not as interested in moving those accountability elements.”
Paulsen won’t go into detail about the conversations he had on the education reform bill, but he reiterated that the position of the Republican caucus in the House was clear.
“This was important for us,” he said. “We made that clear.”
Still, it wasn’t a done deal.
By early April, Gustoff was working overtime. He was sending key legislators and staffers — all Republicans — talking points to counter, as he put it in an e-mail, “those you are working against in the conference committee.”
Those opponents, Gustoff wrote, “are not moved by the facts. Jonathan Swift (an Anglo-Irish satirist and writer from the 17th and 18th century era) once wrote, ‘It is useless to attempt to reason a man out of a thing he was never reasoned into.’ In the end, I don't think reason and all of the evidence in the world are going to prevail with our some of our most hardcore adversaries on these issues, so we are appreciative of your efforts to bring plain old tenacity and determination to bear for school choice.”
On April 15, Gregg, the governor’s legislative lobbyist, sent a text message to David Adelman, a multi-client lobbyist.
“Concerns lie with the home school provisions on Ed reform in the sen dem caucus. Will know more later,” Gregg wrote.
Two days later, the governor was publicly saying he supported the Republicans’ homeschool proposals and he was willing to sign off on increases in the state aid formula that amounted to a 2 percent base increase plus a one-time increase of 2 percent for 2013-14 then a 4 percent increase for 2014-15. His office also produced a video mocking Senate Democrats for not immediately agreeing to the new funding formula.
The promise of new money brought education groups in line. They might not agree with the new homeschool rules, but they wouldn’t actively oppose them.
“The private school and home school issues are not issues that we can advocate for, but we will not fight against some type of compromise in those areas so public schools can receive the funding that has been tentatively agreed upon for 13/14 and 14/15,” Tom Narak, chief lobbyist for the School Administrators of Iowa, wrote to Fandel on May 7.
That same day, Fandel got an email from Margaret Buckton, lobbyist for the Urban Education Network, which represents the state's largest districts.
“We've encouraged folks to not let the nonpublic and home school provisions keep them from reaching compromise,” Buckton wrote.
Two weeks later, on May 21, Gregg texted Gustoff.
“Looks like we have a deal on ed reform,” he wrote. “All home school pieces survive intact. Congratulations!”