Staff Columnist

Iowa public schools hit with a right cross at the Statehouse

The Iowa state quarter is seen in an undated image released by the U.S. Mint. The quarter will be officially unveiled Fr
The Iowa state quarter is seen in an undated image released by the U.S. Mint. The quarter will be officially unveiled Friday, Sept. 3, 2004, at the Iowa Capitol. (AP Photo/U.S. Mint)

It was a nice streak, Iowa.

For the past 25-plus years your columnist has been watching Iowa politics, governors of both parties centered their often ambitious education agendas on the goal of improving public schools.

Statehouse leaders differed on approaches, bickered over details and partisan battles erupted. But in most cases, Republicans and Democrats agreed that making public schools better was a common goal where they could find common ground.

Public schools were right up there with sweet corn and the State Fair among Iowa’s icons. They’re enshrined in our constitution. We even put a schoolhouse on the back of our state quarter.

Now, Gov. Kim Reynolds has broken the streak. Her ambitious education plan for 2021 is centered on the goal of helping Iowans abandon public schools using taxpayer dollars.

Her bill, SSB 1065, would create “Student First Scholarships,” allowing students attending public schools subject to federal comprehensive support and improvement plans under the Every Student Succeeds Act to jump to private schools. They would take their per-pupil state education funding with them.

In other words, students attending what Reynolds calls “failing” schools will get taxpayer funded vouchers to jump ship.

Reynolds also is proposing to remove restrictions on open enrollment put in place by school districts trying to keep more affluent students from transferring out of low-income districts. Davenport, Des Moines, Postville, West Liberty and Waterloo are subject to the diversity plans Reynolds would eliminate.

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School districts, individuals or groups, under the governor’s plan, could petition to form charter schools that would be given flexibility from state rules and regulations in the name of innovation. State per-pupil funding also would follow kids to charter schools.

These changes would take money that could be spent on public education and give it to private schools, including religious schools. As of now, we don’t know how much money would be allocated to the governor’s plans. The changes could dash already difficult school integration efforts, making some districts poorer and less diverse. Urban schools could take the biggest hit. And most of the lawmakers supporting this stuff don’t represent those districts.

Republicans are quick to point to their support for increases in K-12 state education funding, which makes up 40 percent of the general fund budget. A big chunk, to be sure. But that’s been true for decades. And during those decades, our leaders not only wanted to fund schools, but also to make them better. “World-class” even.

Gov. Terry Branstad sought a series of public school reforms in the late 1990s, crafted by a commission chaired by the late Marvin Pomerantz. Branstad even battled with the Republican-controlled Legislature when lawmakers curtailed funding for his plans.

Gov. Tom Vilsack wanted to shrink class sizes and was able to forge a deal with Republicans who controlled the House and Senate. He signed another bipartisan education initiative in 2001 changing the way public school teachers are paid, putting an emphasis on performance over seniority.

Gov. Chet Culver succeeded in adding state-funded preschool for four-year olds to Iowa’s public education mix.

When Branstad came back in 2011, he convened an education summit bringing leaders from across the nation to Iowa to share ideas for transforming public schools in the face of global economic challenges. In 2013, Branstad signed another sweeping bill changing the way teachers are paid, evaluated and promoted.

Branstad also tried to defund public preschool, but, fortunately, failed.

Yes, over the years, legislatures and governors also have provided help to non-public education. They’ve passed tax breaks for tuition, educational materials and for donations to private school scholarship funds, among other assistance measures. Private schools are a good choice for a lot of families.

But the main event was always finding ways to improve public schools.

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And yes, Statehouse Republicans have been talking about vouchers for years. But there always seemed to be enough lawmakers with misgivings about kicking their local public schools to shelve those plans.

Then came the pandemic. Public schools, like all of us, struggled to find their footing in the face of a deadly public health threat. Districts put together online learning plans on the fly in the spring, hoping the pandemic would improve by August.

But it did not improve, thanks in no small part to our governor’s woefully inadequate response. So districts agonized over more tough choices, a job made tougher by state mandates signed by Reynolds.

Now, Reynolds is now using those struggles as a pretext for shifting dollars to private schools. Never waste a crisis. Schools took it on the chin from the pandemic, now they get a right cross from the Statehouse.

In the 2020 election, the GOP increased its legislative majority. The political guardrails shielding public education were weakened.

Public schools are our collective statement as citizens of Iowa that we value education for everyone and are willing to support it. Schools are more than a setting for a campaign commercial. They’re a unifying idea we’ve worked hard to improve upon.

Sure, those improvements have a mixed track record, but we’ve never stopped trying to make them better, until now.

The state’s quarter said “Foundation in Education.” Better change it to “Take the money and run.”

(319) 398-8262; todd.dorman@thegazette.com

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