March 30, 2017 5:27 pm

The Rise of Iowans for Public Education

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The March for Iowa Teachers on the eve of the collective bargaining debate brought 5,000 to the statehouse.

By Karen Nichols, founder of Iowans for Public Education

While the rest of the country has had all eyes on D.C. these past few months, Iowans have been dealing with our own out-of-control legislature. The legislation comes so quickly that it’s almost impossible to organize against the onslaught. Our heads are spinning.

The attacks to public education were not unforeseen. On December 21, a Des Moines Register article by Sen. Herman Quirmbach, former chair of the senate education committee, predicted the coming threats to Iowa education, including cuts in funding, attacks on the rights of public workers, and expansion of school “choice.” All of these have indeed been proposed, and a monstrous collective bargaining law and underfunding in response to budget shortfalls (thanks, corporate welfare!) have come to pass.

Yet desperate times also create new opportunities – everyday Iowans are stepping up. We realize that there’s really no one to save us but ourselves.

Quirmbach’s article ended with this paragraph:

Preventing this damage to public education is now up to the education community and the public. Common-sense Iowans have always valued public education, and common-sense Iowans have always been willing to pay their fair share. If we are to save public education in this state, and if we are to put ourselves back on the path to a brighter future for our kids, we all need to speak out and reach out to Republican legislators before it is too late.”

In the week after reading this article, I couldn’t get Quirmbach’s words out of my mind. As the wife of a teacher, a mom of three, and a writer who has spent most of my career in educational publishing, focusing my activism on education made sense. So I looked around for ways to get involved. Not finding a lot of options, I started a Facebook group called Iowans for Public Education on December 30. By January 3, the group had 2,500 members. Soon the collective bargaining fight would wake a sleeping giant, and our membership would grow exponentially. Today, we are at 10,600 members and counting.

While we have lost some battles and are still fighting others—vouchers are stalled, for now— we are learning quite a bit in the process.

  • Collaboration with other action organizations has brought resources to the fight and protesters to the statehouse steps. Org leaders meet to discuss how to support one another, leverage our various strengths, and not duplicate efforts.

    For example, as we focused on collective bargaining, a group out of Des Moines, Parents for Great Iowa Schools, prepared educational tools for the voucher fight. Such tag-team efforts make it possible to meet multiple assaults coming in rapid succession. 
  • Social media empowers us. Facebook groups (rather than pages) allow people from around the state to come together in virtual community to share resources and educate one another, offer a variety of expertise, and coordinate statewide actions. We benefit from expert volunteers in PR and legislative watch in Des Moines, a volunteer intern at Luther College in Decorah, a graduate student researcher in Cedar Rapids, and so on.

    Our members show up at legislative forums in communities all over the state to hold their legislators accountable, and they livestream these forums to our Facebook page. Responses to letters and calls are reported back to the group so we know where individual legislators stand and can collect information to share with the public during upcoming elections. And converting facts and talking points into social media campaigns helps our message to reach the farthest corners of the state inexpensively.
  • The grassroots is where the real influence lies.  Conservative legislators continue to march forward with their agenda, unwilling to negotiate and ignoring even the most convincing testimony at the statehouse. “We won” is their standard response to objections. So we are going directly to the people. Using community and political organizing techniques, we are forming local, grassroots teams around the state to more effectively reach and educate constituents.

As ALEC includes Iowa among its list of targeted states for expanding school privatization, and as Americans for Prosperity sets up offices around the state, we know we are in for a long and difficult fight to save our schools. We look forward to being a part of the Network for Public Education and learning from all of you who have been on this road for some time. Please reach us at and on Facebook and Twitter. Website coming soon to