Nussle, Branstad & teacher pay

GOP gubernatorial candidate Jim Nussle started out his general election campaign by declaring that he wants teacher pay in Iowa to be "better than average" and I’m not going to go into details about the charges and counter-charges about how much that would cost.  (Although one RI colleague who listened to yesterday’s Nussle v. Culver charges and counter-charges suggested it sounded a lot like two kids saying repeatedly "I know you are, but what am I?")

Nussle has been claiming that former Governor Terry Branstad, a Republican, was able to raise teacher pay to the national average.  While Branstad made this promise — remember "Phase I, Phase II and Phase III" old-timers? — he never achieved the goal. 

According to the Iowa State Education Association and other data I found on-line, the last time Iowa teacher pay ranked 25th in the nation was in 1979-80.  Robert Ray was governor.  Branstad took office in 1983 and Iowa teacher pay ranked 29th at the time.  By the 1986/87 school year, average teacher pay in Iowa had dropped to 38th in the country.  Branstad beat Democrat Lowell Junkins in 1986 to win a second term and in 1987 the Iowa Legislature passed the "Excellence in Education Act" at Branstad’s urging.  It contained those three "phases" I mentioned earlier.  With that chunk of cash, Iowa teacher pay vaulted from 38th to 30th.  That was the highest it ever got, though, and continued a steady downward trend through the remaining nine years that Branstad was in office and in the years that Governor Tom Vilsack’s been in office.  (Branstad did try in his final year in office to try to get legislators to raise teacher pay significantly, especially the minimum salary which impacts starting teachers most, but the Republican-led legislature refused to do it.)

In 2001, the Iowa Legislature and Governor Tom Vilsack enacted a law outlining a teacher pay plan, and promising the money the next year, but they never came through with the money.  This past session, legislators and the governor committed $210 million over the next 3 years to raise Iowa teacher pay from its current 41st in the country ranking.

The average teacher pay in Iowa is just over $39,000 today.  Nussle’s new promise to raise teacher pay above the national average — by redirecting resources from state government operations — does the interesting trick of pitting two unions against one another.  To make significant cuts in state government, Nussle will have to pare the payroll — as Terry Branstad did in some lean years to the howls of AFSCME — and give that money to teachers, who have their own union — the ISEA.

Nussle also promises to raise teacher pay without raising taxes (Terry Branstad approved two hikes in the state sales tax while he was in office — and never ended up getting enough cash together to raise teacher pay to the national average).  "I believe with the size of our (state) government, which is now sixth-highest in the nation, that we can find the priorities within that bureaucracy, within that giant government to reprioritize and make education the number one issue as opposed to where it has been really disintegrated to under the Vilsack Administration and I will work to get that done," Nussle told reporters this morning.  While Nussle refused to lay out specific plans — such as state worker firings or perhaps a pay freeze, one GOP legislator I just talked to via email said it would take those kind of measures, or perhaps cuts in Medicaid which is eating a huge hole in the budget, to raise the chunk of dough that Nussle needs to achieve his "better than average" promise.

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About O.Kay Henderson

O. Kay Henderson is the news director of Radio Iowa.


  1. I wish the public realized Culver’s education plan to move Iowa teacher salaries to the 25th in the nation was only for two years. After that, the money will be taken away…gone. Nice political ploy.