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Prichard, Ragan discuss education at Big 4 Forum

Prichard, Ragan discuss education at Big 4 Forum
Iowa Rep. Todd Prichard (D-Charles City) and Sen. Amanda Ragan (D-Mason City) took questions from retired public school personnel Wednesday morning at the Big 4 Forum held at NIACC in Charles City. (Press photo James Grob.)
By James Grob,

Want to know five words that that are sure to make a group of 20 retired Iowa public school personnel happy?

“IPERS is in solid shape.”

Iowa Rep. Todd Prichard and Sen. Amanda Ragan told members of the Big 4 Unit of the Iowa Retired School Personnel Association (IRSPA) gathered at the NIACC Center in Charles City Wednesday morning that the Iowa Public Employees’ Retirement System (IPERS) is safe, at least for the time being.

“I don’t think IPERS is in any immediate danger,” Prichard said at the forum. “It’s doing great. It’s still a wonderful system, as it was last year and the year before, and every year since we first got it.”

Prichard said there is always a rumbling that someone is going to introduce a bill “to do something with IPERS.”

IPERS is a defined benefit pension plan in which retirement income is determined by a formula based on years of service and salary earned. It is available to all public employees in Iowa. The rules governing the operation of IPERS are controlled by the Legislature.

“We are always aware of people out there who want to change it,” Ragan said. “I was surprised to hear one legislator call it a program for ‘bottom-feeders,’ but he’s no longer holding public office.”

Prichard urged the retired public school employees to remain vigilant, as there are “a handful of people who would like to do something drastically different with it.”

“Those people are a pretty small group, though,” Prichard said. “You always need to watch out for it, but as of right now, IPERS is pretty safe.”

Mary Koenigsfield moderated the annual Big 4 forum win Wednesday, and Prichard and Ragan were invited to participate in a Q&A session with the retired teachers and other school personnel.

Ragan, a Democrat who serves Senate District 27, was elected in 2018 to her fifth term in the Iowa Senate. She represents Franklin, Butler and Cerro Gordo counties.

Prichard, a Democrat from Charles City, has been a representative since 2013 and currently represents Iowa House District 52, covering Floyd, Chickasaw and part of Cerro Gordo county.

Iowa state Sen. Waylon Brown was also invited to the forum, but was unable to attend due to medical issues. Brown, a Republican from St. Ansgar, represents the 26th Iowa Senate District.

Most of the questions, not surprisingly, regarded public school issues such as school choice, vouchers and charter schools.

Ragan said she was opposed to the charter schools bill, which passed both chambers last session and was signed into law by Gov. Kim Reynolds.

“We already had a charter school opportunity. The structure was there to give guidance and oversight to charter schools,” Ragan said. “I don’t feel that the piece of legislation that passed had that structure.”

Prichard agreed, and called the bill passing “unfortunate,” as it allows charter schools to take public funding with little regulation or oversight. He said that charter schools don’t have to offer the same services that are required of public schools in Iowa.

“We know those services are necessary,” Prichard said. “We know they contribute to learning in an environment that is beneficial for children, and these charter schools are exempted from a lot of that.”

Prichard said that charter schools have little or no community oversight, and so cannot be considered community schools.

“This thing is dangerous, I think,” Prichard said. “This could really hurt our public schools in a diversion of funding.”

A voucher bill passed the Iowa Senate but was voted down in the House. Ragan said that she was thankful the House had “the good sense” to vote it down, with several members from both sides of the aisle rejecting it.

“I don’t believe vouchers are a good way to fund public education,” Ragan said. “I’m supportive of school choice, but I think it’s really important to fund public education first.”

She said there are already grants and other funding procedures and opportunities to help parents who need it with school choice.

“If you’re a rural school, you can really see what a voucher program can do,” Ragan said. “It really makes a difference when a small school loses that money.”

Prichard stressed the importance of public education in Iowa and urged those attending the forum to keep advocating for public schools.

“There are people that don’t really see education the same way you and most Iowans see education,” he said. “They don’t see the importance of public education, and they don’t see the benefits.”

He said that many companies are in Iowa because of its reputation as a good system for public education.

“Big employers stay in Iowa because a high school diploma here means something,” Prichard said. “If you want good workers, if you want a robust economy, invest in your education system, because that’s your worker pipeline.”

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