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Special interests drive Iowa education reforms

5/13/2013

DES MOINES – Good intentions aren’t the only driving force behind Iowa’s education reform efforts.

State education agencies, special interest groups and for-profit education companies have spent thousands in 2012 and 2013 to hire lobbyists and pad the campaign coffers of lawmakers who sit on key committees. Many of these groups receive most, if not all, taxpayer funding, an Iowa Watchdog review of campaign and lobbyist records show.

SPECIAL INTERESTS: Public agencies and private for-profit companies are seeking a say in education reform by giving hundreds of thousands of dollars to lawmakers and lobbyists.

SPECIAL INTERESTS: Public agencies and private for-profit companies are seeking a say in education reform by giving hundreds of thousands of dollars to lawmakers and lobbyists.

Companies and government groups alike spent roughly $3 million in 2012 to hire lobbyists to represent their interests in the reform efforts, legislative records show.

That figure includes $404,348 from government agencies and groups that rely heavily on taxpayer dollars for funding.

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Examples include the Iowa Board of Regents, which spent $150,000; the Iowa State Education Association, which paid $103,000; and the Iowa Department of Education, which spent nearly $65,000 to push reforms.

Even Gov. Terry Branstad’s office chipped in for lobbying, according to records.

Among the biggest spenders in the reform debate are for-profit education companies and other private businesses that continue to push for looser regulations and more opportunities to create in-roads for expansion, according to the review.

Private companies and an education fundraising group, including BridgePoint Education, Wellmark, Deere Company and StudentsFirst, contributed a combined $301,000 in 2012. Political action committees BridgePoint Education and Educational Opportunities also gave money, according to state disclosure statements. Educational Opportunities is backed by the Iowa Advocates for Choice in Education.

The money has continued to flow into the reform conversation, despite ongoing disagreements among the Democrat-led Senate and Republican-led House that have stalled efforts, records show.

Each group – public or private – carries its own interests in the reform talks, whether it’s better pay and more support for teachers or the expansion of full- and part-time virtual schools. And more money typically means more access to lawmakers for groups to promote their interests.

Iowa follows a national trend in private companies throwing money into states that are overhauling education. It provides them with a breeding ground to further expand their business in new states, sunlight experts say.

Take for example K12 Inc. and Connections Academy. Both companies approached rural districts and used the state’s open enrollment laws to open two full-time virtual schools, with millions in state dollars being shipped out of state to companies with questionable records.

At least one of the companies told a superintendent that it came to Iowa because of  the reform movement here.

Vivica Novak’s group, the Center for Responsive Politics, has seen an up-tick in spending from such groups since 2010, she said.

“It is often the case that the financial ties are not as obvious,” Novak said.

Then there’s for-profit education companies like BridgePoint Education. The education company provides online degrees for college students and owns the controversial Ashford University in Clinton.

Since 2010, BridgePoint has contributed $25,150 to lawmakers and spent an additional $130,348 for lobbyists in efforts to loosen regulations and expand its presence, according to state documents. One legislator includes Sen. Herman Quirmbach, chair of the Senate Education Committeee.

BridgePoint Education and Ashford University have come under fire in recent years, prompting federal lawmakers to demand investigations. Many of the schools secure tuition dollars and have high dropout rates.

Both BridgePoint and Educational Opportunities PACs contributed to high-ranking Iowa lawmakers in the past year, including Sen. Tod Bowman D-Maquoketa; Sen. Amy Sinclair R-Allerton and Rep. Cecil Dolecheck R-Mount Ayr, state records show.

The vast majority – 37 of 41 – of the candidates who received donations from Educational Opportunities in 2012 were Republicans. Just four were Democrats.

Another vocal group in Iowa’s reform debate has been StudentsFirst, a group headed by Michelle Rhee, the former chancellor of the District of Columbia school district. The organization poured more than $317,000 into Iowa’s 2012 legislative races, making it the single largest contributor. It also paid for advertising and email campaigns in the state.

The group supports teacher evaluations that tie student performance to teacher performance.

Current education reforms in the Iowa legislature call for teacher evaluations as a means of determining compensation and promotion. The complete implementation of the new salary and leadership structure is estimated to put a $160 million dent in the state budget. But that’s only if Senate and House leaders can reach a compromise.

“The public will know who is benefiting from the legislation being put forward,” Novak said.

Contact Tushar Rae at tusharrae@gmail.com.  Contact Sheena Dooley at dooley@iowawatchdog.org. Sheena Dooley is the Iowa bureau chief for Watchdog.org, where this story first appeared.

Upper Iowa