Recent editorials published in Iowa newspapers
Des Moines Register. Nov. 14, 2019
Reynolds on right track with pushing criminal justice reforms, but she and Legislature must act
The Public Safety Advisory Board has made recommendations directly related to some of the issues Reynolds seeks to address. Why not follow the direction provided by the board less than a year ago?
When Iowans are incarcerated or haunted by criminal records, all of us pay a price — in broken families, lost job opportunities and public dollars. So Gov. Kim Reynolds deserves credit for making criminal justice reform a priority.
She has advocated for restoring felon voting rights. She recently launched a pair of initiatives focused on racial bias and helping ex-inmates reenter society. Earlier this month, Lt. Gov. Adam Gregg led the first meeting of a committee to develop recommendations for legislation.
While these efforts are well-intentioned, it’s hard to imagine Iowa needs more committees and contemplation to chart a course forward on criminal justice reform — which has been studied extensively for many years by government and non-government entities in this state.
What Iowa does need: lawmakers and a governor who act on recommendations from experts and stakeholders who already have invested much time, research, work and thought into reform measures.
Meaningful proposals exist. They need to be implemented.
The Public Safety Advisory Board was established by the Iowa Legislature in 2010. Its mission was to provide criminal justice research, evaluation and data to lawmakers with an eye to enhancing public safety, improving outcomes and making the best use of taxpayer dollars.
The board, which comprises members representing public safety, corrections, law enforcement, human services, mental health, courts, the parole board and legislators, did its job.
It made recommendations directly related to some of the issues Reynolds now says she is interested in addressing. Instead of new groups and more discussion, how about following the direction provided by the advisory board less than a year ago?
Recommendations in its December 2018 report to the Iowa Legislature include: Restore voting rights to criminal offenders
Iowa is one of two states that automatically ban felons from voting for life. This is a national embarrassment that strips people of constitutional rights while punishing and alienating them long after they have served their time for wrongdoing. Though Reynolds asked lawmakers to address this issue, the GOP-controlled Iowa Legislature didn’t. Reynolds is right to push the Legislature for a permanent fix by starting the process to amend the Iowa Constitution. But that’s a yearslong endeavor, and felons who have completed their sentences deserve justice now. To help them immediately, Reynolds doesn’t need lawmakers. If she really wants to help offenders be part of their communities, she can sign an executive order to automatically restore their voting rights. She could dust off the one former Gov. Tom Vilsack used, which allowed tens of thousands of Iowans to be active participants in their democracy. Then Gov. Terry Branstad reversed the order.
When the legislative branch refuses to act on an issue, it’s up to the executive branch to do what it can. That is leadership. If lawmakers don’t like it, they can show some leadership of their own by starting the process to amend the constitution, which would ultimately trigger a public vote.
Enact anti-racial profiling measures
Law enforcement officers are the entry point into the criminal justice system. Racial disparities in arrests lead to racial disparities in incarceration. And Iowa has a disparity problem.
A black person in Iowa is about seven times more likely to be arrested for drug possession than a white person, even though the two races use illicit drugs at roughly the same rate, according to a 2016 report from the ACLU/Human Rights Watch. This followed an earlier study ranking Iowa worst in the country for disproportionate arrests of black people for marijuana use.
State lawmakers and the governor can implement the recommendations of the Public Safety Advisory Board to define and ban racial profiling, require data collection on officer-involved stops, analyze that data and provide adequate training for officers to prevent profiling.
Also: ‘Ban the box’ asking about criminal history
In addition, Reynolds is encouraging employers to hire ex-inmates. She could help pave the way for that by asking lawmakers to pass “ban the box” legislation. This wasn’t among the advisory board’s recommendations, but it’s a step Iowa should take.
Such legislation would prohibit employers from asking questions about criminal history on job applications and require them to wait until applicants are being interviewed or offered a job to inquire about past wrongdoing. Banning the box does not dictate who employers can or cannot hire. Applicants can still be asked about criminal history, but delaying such questions until later in the hiring process ensures an applicant is given a fair shot and encourages needed equity.
Cities and states across the country have done this. But not Iowa.
Just as with many issues related to criminal justice reform, state leaders have held a lot of meetings and issued a lot of press releases, but they have taken too little action. That happens again and again, even though every governor in recent memory has taken an interest in this issue.
The state’s Division of Criminal & Juvenile Justice Planning website lists four current and three former councils, a committee on disproportionate minority contact, task forces for women and juveniles and information about system improvement projects and diversion programs. Then there are the years of reports and recommendations from the Public Safety Advisory Board.
Iowa doesn’t need more councils and committees on criminal justice. It needs legislative and executive action.
Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier. Nov. 17, 2019
UNI looks forward with partnerships
The sands of higher education are shifting, prompting more schools to enter into partnerships and utilize distance learning to attract elusive “place-bound” students.
The University of Northern Iowa took a step this month to increase its Des Moines footprint.
UNI President Mark Nook and President Rob Denson of Des Moines Area Community College announced a new 2+2 partnership — earning an associate of arts degree on DMACC’s Urban Campus, then completing work through UNI for a bachelor of liberal studies degree. The UNI courses would be offered online initially with staff present to support students, beginning in fall 2020.
The Board of Regents must approve the arrangement, but it previously gave UNI, the University of Iowa and Iowa State University marching orders to become creative amid declining enrollment, including pursuing more relationships with community and private colleges.
UNI is down 715 students this fall to 10,497, its lowest total since 1975 (10,181). Iowa community college transfers to UNI have dropped from 829 students in 2010 to 534. According to Board of Regents documents, tuition revenue is projected to drop $6.6 million.
The enrollment decline is nationwide. The National Student Clearinghouse Research Center found total postsecondary enrollment fell 1.7% (300,000) in 2019 as part of an eight-year trend.
Two-year colleges dropped 3.4% and four-year public colleges -0.9%. Four-year private nonprofit schools increased 3.2%.
For-profit colleges plummeted -19.7% as the Education Corporation of America followed Corinthian Colleges and ITT Technical Schools into bankruptcy, failing to meet the “gainful employment” standard — preparation for actual jobs — set by the Obama administration.
UNI began teaming up with DMACC in 1995 on its Carroll campus with a 2+2 program for an elementary education teaching degree designed to fill a need for rural Iowa teachers, later expanding it to DMACC’s Ankeny and Boone campuses.
It had traditional face-to-face teaching (“the sage on stage”) and distance learning (“MOOC” or massive open online courses). More than 300 students have graduated from the program.
UNI and DMACC have two other 2+2 degree partnerships: managing business and organizations and criminal justice. An advisor helps students navigate the program, and they get support services.
UNI would pay $500,000 annually to DMACC, which would provide classroom and office space, as part of a 20-year agreement. Nook said UNI would privately raise $5 million to help fund the project — half to support construction of a new building on the DMACC Urban Campus and half for student support.
DMACC’s Urban Campus has nearly 5,000 students — Iowa’s first public education majority-minority campus with 52% students of color. Its students have an average age of 28.
It is imperative for Iowa to ramp up educational opportunities for minorities.
The goal of the 2016 Future Iowa Read Initiative is to have 70 percent of the workforce educated beyond a high school degree by 2025. It was 60 percent in 2014 and is on pace to be only 66 percent by 2025 when the state is estimated to need 127,700 to 150,000 more workers with some post-secondary education or training.
Meanwhile, the 2018 Condition of Higher Education in Iowa report found Iowa’s minority population is “young and growing,” including 24 percent (113,000) of kindergartners through 12th-grade students.
Iowa has “more minority students than ever in the pool of potential college graduates,” the report said.
Yet while Iowa was first in the nation with an overall 91 percent high school graduation rate in 2016, the graduation rates were 82.8% and 79.2% for Hispanic and black students, respectively.
The incentive to improve their educational status is a Bureau of Labor Statistics report on average Iowa incomes between 2013-15: Those with a high school degree earned $35,000 annually; those with bachelor’s degrees earned $60,015. That divide will only grow.
Partnerships like the one between UNI and DMACC will help alleviate some of the financial barriers for minorities — and others — with the lower cost of a community college, the affordability of living at home and the greater availability of part-time employment.
Online education is growing. According to the U.S. Department of Education, 5,954,121 students are enrolled in a distance education course at degree-granting postsecondary institutions, although it’s 2,871,788 for those exclusively taking courses online.
Pitfalls exist online, particularly for at-risk students. Harvard and Stanford researchers found students with weak preparation do substantially worse online than in face-to-face classes, based on a study of identical courses at for-profit DeVry University.
That puts the burden on DMACC to get students up to speed if necessary, and UNI to do its best at nurturing them.
In the changing landscape of college education, their partnership is a step forward that hopefully pays dividends for the students, the colleges and the state economy.
Quad City Times. Nov. 17, 2019
Be up front on I-74 problems.
We have watched in fascination for 2½ years as the new Interstate-74 bridge has slowly risen from below the waters of the Mississippi River.
This once-in-a-lifetime project is revitalizing a key artery of our community. The I-74 bridge carries tens of thousands of people across it each day, and we have been told, its replacement is being built to last 100 years.
So it’s no small thing when we hear the main builder of the span says the design is “not constructible.”
As Quad-City Times reporter Barb Ickes wrote last week, Lunda Construction, of Black River Falls, Wisconsin, and the Iowa Department of Transportation are at odds over the construction of the twin basket-handle arches that are not just the most prominent visual centerpiece of the span but a key foundational support.
Lunda says it has encountered issues with the designs, specifically “the geometry of the arch and tolerances within the design.” As a result, the arches have been delayed for months.
The DOT disagrees with its contractor. “Our position is that at all times it remains constructible,” says Danielle Alvarez, the project manager for the DOT.
We’re not bridge builders, just the people who drive on them. But when we hear the words being used in this dispute, it leads us to wonder about the safety of a span that is supposed to last 100 years.
It also is troubling that current and former I-74 bridge workers say Lunda has intentionally kept the project off schedule as part of a dispute with the state over funding. The company has a $322 million contract to build the part of the bridge that crosses the Mississippi River.
Already, we have seen the construction schedule pushed back. Department of Transportation officials now are telling us completion of the Iowa-bound span won’t happen until late 2020 — a year behind schedule. And the Illinois-bound bridge still must be built. Originally, the entire project was to have been finished in late 2020 or early 2021.
Alvarez assures us that “when completed, the new bridge will be structurally sound and provide a safe, improved traveling experience for all motorists.”
We would be more assured if the parties involved had been more transparent about these issues.
Lunda, from the beginning of this project, has been wholly inaccessible to our questions. Calls are not returned; neither are emails. In response to Ickes’ detailed questions, the company provided her a statement that acknowledged the differences but provided few details.
Lunda did deny that it delayed work under the original contract scope.
We are disappointed in the Iowa Department of Transportation, too. When this newspaper has asked about delays in the arch construction, we have been told again and again how “challenging” it is. We’ve heard about the impact of the weather. But never, until this newspaper approached the agency about the dispute, did it acknowledge the difficulties with the contractor.
Lunda, in its statement, said it wanted to honor the partnering process it has with DOT, an apparent explanation for why it did not want to answer specific questions. We expect the DOT wants a good working relationship, too. Which we understand. But what about the other partners in this project — the public? The people who are paying for this bridge, the people who will be living with it for the next 100 years?
Disputes are not unusual in large construction projects. We understand this. But the idea that work is being purposely slowed in order to gain leverage in a contract dispute is pretty serious, and it should not be tolerated.
We will continue to watch this project as it moves forward. We do hope the pace quickens, though we understand safety must come first. We hope the contractor and the state amicably resolve their differences.
The people of the Quad-Cities are eager to see this new bridge, to see how it improves travel and fits into our skyline. But we know that completion still is quite a ways off.
As this project moves forward, this newspaper will continue to watch its progress and to seek answers; we’re hopeful the parties involved are more eager to provide them.