Staff Columnist

Reynolds' thank you to Iowa public schools: Mandates and vouchers

Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds delivers her Condition of the State address before a joint session of the Iowa Legislature, Tuesd
Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds delivers her Condition of the State address before a joint session of the Iowa Legislature, Tuesday, Jan. 12, 2021, at the Statehouse in Des Moines, Iowa. (Bryon Houlgrave/The Des Moines Register via AP)

Gov. Kim Reynolds lavished praise on Iowa’s public schools during her Condition of the State address Tuesday night, using a string of anecdotes pointing out how districts have gone the extra mile to educate our kids during a deadly pandemic.

Then the governor turned to her actual education plans. They’re far less heartwarming.

Reynolds and Republicans who control the Legislature will fast-track legislation requiring Iowa schools to offer 100 percent in-person classes even as the pandemic continues. She called for the creation of “education savings accounts,” basically vouchers, likely allowing families to take tax dollars and use them to pay for private school or home schooling. She said accounts are needed to rescue children “trapped in a failing public school.”

Reynolds would require all districts to allow open enrollment out, likely scuttling diversity plans in five Iowa districts — West Liberty, Postville, Waterloo, Davenport and Des Moines — that restrict higher-income families from leaving. She’d also make it easier to create public charter schools.

“If there’s one thing the pandemic has taught us about education, it’s that our parents need choice,” Reynolds said, while insisting the state can still have a strong public school system.

Details were not included.

But the last time Republicans made a serious run at vouchers was in 2019. That plan provided annual vouchers to K-12 students equal to average per-pupil state aid to public schools, nearly $7,000. The money could be used to pay for a non-public school or “competent private instruction,” also known as home schooling. Families would reapply for grants each year.

A 2017 version said vouchers could be used at schools with different accountability standards for testing, public reporting and required classes, and the schools would not be required to admit all students. The bill barred the Department of Education from proposing any laws that would “place an undue burden” on private schools or home-schools.

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Estimated price tags ranged from $100 million to $200 million or more.

So this is the thanks public schools get for tackling the challenges of educating students in difficult times. They get a governor who believes local officials aren’t smart enough to decide how best to keep students and staff safe. Instead, we’ll trust the maskless masterminds under the golden dome.

Money that might have gone to help public schools and fill educational gaps exposed by the pandemic will instead go to private schools. Also, we’ll reopen the white flight freeway.

What’s telling is the governor didn’t say anything about how these steps will make education better in Iowa. She has no plans to improve public education. Instead, she’s popping the escape hatch.

So what’s it really about? In Florida, for example, 80 percent of vouchers are used to pay for religious education. In 2018, the Orlando Sentinel found some of the schools receiving vouchers taught distorted history and science lessons. This year, the paper found vouchers went to 83 schools that refuse to admit LGBTQ students and expel them if their orientation or gender identity is discovered.

So maybe this is about choice. And maybe this is about creating an education slush fund for the governor’s religious conservative allies. We’d all love to see the details, soon.

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

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