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Defunding the great equalizer in Iowa
After a few years of red-faced diatribes at the school board and the Statehouse, parents horrified by their children learning U.S. history and being affirmed in their genders have been rewarded with public tax dollars to isolate their children in private schools. In the weeks that followed the passage of the “School Choice’ law,” public school administrators, parents, lawmakers, and concerned citizens have voiced their concern for the future of public schools. Once fully implemented, the project will cost an estimated $345 million per year — money that Iowa public schools desperately need.
How did our tax dollars become a major funding source for public education?
In 1854, Iowa’s third governor, James Grimes, leveraged his inaugural address to call on his new constituents to support a radical overhaul of the education system. His request? A tax on their property to fund a common public school system that would not place the burden of tuition on individual families. A statewide unified “tax-supported free public school” system that would prepare the people for “careers of honor and purpose,” for everyone.
Although Iowa was the first state in the nation to institute a public school system, it was underutilized and under-resourced. Consisting of a hodgepodge of institutions unevenly scattered throughout the state, only 42 percent of school-aged children ever attended — and less than a quarter showed up regularly. This was partially due to the cost of attendance: those who went to school were those with the means to cover tuition.
Having just achieved statehood in 1846, it was necessary to devise a more effective infrastructure for the growing populace. Iowa’s population tripled during the 1850s as wave after wave of pioneers fanned westward across the state. Grimes himself had stood on the west bank of the mighty Mississippi and presided over the signing of the treaty that ceded Sauk and Meskwaki land to the U.S. government as Secretary to the Indian Commission at Rock Island nearly 20 years before he was sworn in as governor. No organized groups of Indigenous peoples remained by 1850.
Grimes’ ask for property taxes was a heavy lift. As any current or past member of a school board can attest, asking your neighbors to levy a tax for the purpose of public education is at the very least a request for dirty looks in the checkout line. He reasoned that the most effective deterrent to crime, theft, and poverty is public education. Private property benefited from lower crime rates — therefore property taxes should be levied to cover the cost of educating the masses.
After much delaying and debate over whether each district would be allowed to refuse Black children entry to public schools on a case-by-case basis, (they were) Grimes’ bid for a property tax levy was successful.
The resulting education system has seen some of the highest graduation rates in the country, high rates of literacy, ACT scores above the national average, and high rates of students going on to our highly regarded public universities.
You may find yourself now curious as to why over a century and a half later, we have opted to reroute those tax dollars to private schools. Teachers have already been leaving the profession in droves, pushed out by a hostile political climate, wages that don’t align with the demands of the work, and feeling they lack sufficient support from administrators.
Nearly half of Iowa’s counties are devoid of private schools; as families in those areas remove their children from the public education system, small rural schools will suffer most from lost funding as will urban public districts. Further, many private schools are exempt from federal laws requiring public schools to provide admission to children with disabilities. Private schools tend to be far more racially segregated, and are able to legally exclude children (and teachers) who identify as LGBTQ. The law puts public dollars to use at organizations that are not held to the same standard as public institutions — the standards that we have decided are important as a state, like equitable employment practices and uniform performance measures. By decreasing resources available to public schools, the law is also in direct opposition to the purpose of creating and funding a public school system in the first place — equipping all of Iowa’s youth with the knowledge, skills, and abilities to take on careers of honor and purpose.
So … what are we preparing them for? Pardon me while I pull out my tinfoil hat and eyeball the low-wage service positions employers are still struggling to fill post-pandemic. If I were attempting to motivate an unwilling labor force to accept positions without providing an increase in financial incentives, I suppose an overqualified candidate pool would be an unappealing proposition. Once you have shortened the length of time people can claim unemployment, developed policy you hope will decrease food access and require those on Medicaid to work (although only in positions earning less than $18,070 per year) you might start to take the long view. What is the workforce going to look like in a decade or two?
The School Choice law has no income limits for beneficiaries. A financial boon for those with the means to offer their children private education is an easy play to the conservative base, but will have long term consequences for a public school system already strapped for cash, facing a shortage of educators, and tasked with managing social services challenges faced by the students and families they serve.
Sofia DeMartino is a Gazette editorial fellow. Comments: firstname.lastname@example.org
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