There was nothing unethical about Art Tate's call for justice. Iowa Board of Educational Examiners should end the prolonged unnecessary strife and place the blame squarely where it belongs, on the Statehouse steps.
The superintendent of Davenport Community Schools may have breached state law, which led to investigations into alleged ethics violations. The district's School Board may have acted as an accomplice. Together, Tate and the School Board knowingly flouted state code by spending down its reserves and, for the short term, ensuring Davenport's students get the same support as others in the state.
Illegal, probably. Unethical, not in the slightest.
It's been more than 250 days since state Education Department opened its investigation into Tate's budgetary maneuver. Under Iowa law, this entire masquerade should have been over after 180 days. Tate says the investigation is complete, but it has yet to come before examiners for a final ruling.
It's hard to finger Education Department investigators or even members of the board of examiners, however. They were, no doubt, hoping the Legislature would correct the historical injustice against which Tate and his School Board crusaded. There's a very good chance that the systematic unfairness of Iowa's funding formula gets put on trial in state Supreme Court, should examiners demand Tate's license.
At present, some districts receive up to $175 more in per-student state aid than districts on the low end, such as Davenport and Maquoketa. Iowa's disparate funding formula is a key player in a vicious cycle that hammers property-poor districts. Would-be homebuyers seek out better-funded schools. They buy homes and property in those districts. Property-poor neighboring districts — already starved by the state — bleed cash, resources and housing stock. And it's been happening for years all because of handshake politics four decades ago.
The prolonged nature of the investigation, which could end Tate's career, is evidence that education examiners are keenly aware that Tate is making a stand against injustice. His ouster would unite lawmakers, local officials, parents, School Board members and this editorial board into a nonpartisan chorus shouting disdain toward Des Moines. And Tate would attain near martyr status at the cost of his career.
Yes, education investigators and examiners clearly hoped lawmakers would rectify the situation and make it all go away. They, too, know where the blame falls here. No clear-thinking regulator or political appointee wants to grapple with the fallout that Tate's removal would ultimately cause.
But no, the Iowa Legislature was too busy celebrating its one-party domination — handing out senseless hyper-partisan victories — to actually get much of real substance through. Unions, voting access and women's health clinics were easy targets that left little time for grappling with real problems.
To be fair, Iowa Senate did ram through a bill that would have exonerated Tate and, over a decade, right the funding inequity. That fact alone proves that lawmakers aren't blind to the injustice of Iowa's school funding formula. Predictably, however, the legislation suffered an unceremonious death by neglect in the House, where members scrambled to ax programs and correct a budgetary shortfall of their own making. Lawmakers derided the budget mess and, yet, the state this past week still handed out $20 million in incentives to Apple for a new data center. That's roughly the first-year cost of the Senate's school funding fix. All told, Apple will receive more than $200 million in state and local incentives for just 50 promised jobs. And people wonder why the state's broke.
It would be tone-deaf for education examiners to ignore these realities.
Tate probably did violate state law last year when he used reserve funds to ensure students in Davenport receive the same support as those in more wealthy, well-connected districts. The board was probably complicit. But Tate's act of civil disobedience came after years of griping to lawmakers and state officials. It came after playing by the rules simply failed.
Tate's actions were likely illegal. But, in this instance, the law and basic equity are at odds.
It's the Legislature's years of inaction that violate every conceivable ethical maxim. Everyone knows it's the Legislature, not Art Tate, that should shoulder the blame. Educational examiners should say as much.