Guest Columnist

Restore local control over school start dates

Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds updates the state's response to the coronavirus outbreak during a news conference at the State Em
Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds updates the state's response to the coronavirus outbreak during a news conference at the State Emergency Operations Center, Thursday, May 7, 2020, in Johnston, Iowa. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall, pool)

Tucked among the latest pandemic reopening measures announced by Gov. Kim Reynolds Wednesday evening was a waiver allowing schools to start the academic year before Aug. 23.

You might recall several years ago when then-Gov. Terry Branstad directed the Department of Education to quit granting waivers to local districts that wanted to start classes in mid-August. The governor’s directive had nothing to do with education. He was doing the bidding of the Iowa State Fair and other tourism interests who wanted a longer summer break.

Eventually, the Legislature set the earliest school start date at Aug. 23.

Iowa schools can start early, but only if days are ‘extra’

So, for one year, amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Reynolds is allowing districts to start earlier. There are strings, of course. Any days of school before Aug. 23 must be extra days, added on top of current instructional time requirements.

A state school start dictate is a bad idea, taking flexibility away from elected school boards and local officials to please tourism interests. But it’s hardly the only local control grab we’ve seen, especially since Republicans won total control of the Statehouse.

Counties that raised the local minimum wage saw those increases canceled by a Legislature that’s refused to raise the wage floor for more than a decade. The Legislature threatened to deny state funding to so-called “sanctuary cities” that failed to fully embrace federal immigration edicts. They’ve refused to give local officials more say in siting large livestock facilities, even as local leaders ask for a rewrite of existing law.

Iowa is going back to work, but who will watch the children?


And we’ve learned, according to the governor, that local officials have limited authority in responding to the COVID-19 pandemic. They can’t order business closures or shelter-at-home measures, among other steps. Only the governor can do it.

Do public health officials closest to the local virus situation agree with the governor that retail businesses and malls should partially reopen, as she has ordered? Remarkably, it doesn’t matter.

City councils and school boards are nonpartisan. But with each state power grab they’re left twisting in political winds. Instead of being empowered to do what’s best for their constituents, they’re at the mercy of governors who like tourism and legislators who want to target workers and immigrants.

And now, with the lives and health of their neighbors threatened, they must be pulled along in a rushed reopening plan seemingly based less on solid public health data and more on economic factors affecting the president’s and Republicans’ election prospects.

The pandemic has shown that the balance of power in Iowa has been tilted too far toward state edicts and away from decisions being made by officials close to the governed. It’s time for a better balance to be re-established. Make local control real again.

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