Staff Editorial

Hit the brakes on school choice in Iowa

Viola Gibson Elementary School in Cedar Rapids on Monday, Sept. 21, 2020. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
Viola Gibson Elementary School in Cedar Rapids on Monday, Sept. 21, 2020. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)

Any one of the education choice proposals being pushed by Gov. Kim Reynolds and Republican lawmakers would be a major shift in Iowa education policy.

But the governor’s bill, Senate File 159, includes all three of Reynolds’ top priorities. It creates scholarships allowing families with students in schools under federal improvement plans to use taxpayer funds to pay for private school. Open enrollment limits in districts seeking to keep higher-income students from leaving in the name of diversity would be eliminated. School districts, groups and individuals could petition the state to start charter schools.

Iowa has for years resisted the notion of providing taxpayer-funded scholarships, or vouchers. Open enrollment decisions have largely been left up to local districts. Iowa currently has only a modest charter school program. Reynolds’ plan represents a big change in a state that has traditionally focused education reform efforts on improving public schools.

Pushing all three in a single legislative session would be a mistake in a normal year. But pursuing these changes during a pandemic, when Iowans have limited opportunities to make their voices heard and access the legislative process, is even worse. On top of that, Republicans who run the Legislature have declined to require mask-wearing in the Capitol, making in-person participation not only difficult but dangerous.

A slower approach would make more sense. Perhaps consider charter schools this year, giving public districts an opportunity to pursue innovative programs and approaches. Some of that is already happening in Eastern Iowa, where students can attend Kirkwood Community College regional centers and Cedar Rapids are students are participating in project-based learning through Iowa BIG.

Charter schools are public schools, required to have detailed plans for how they would improve student achievement. If the governor wants more choice, districts would have the opportunity to provide it inside their boundaries and at current attendance centers.

The governor and legislators should give innovation a chance before throwing open the escape hatch for open enrollment or providing taxpayer-funded vouchers. These should be last resorts. Although Reynolds’ scholarships would pull a small fraction of funding away from public schools, we’re wary of how the program might be expanded in the future.

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And it’s disappointing that alongside her plans for choice Reynolds offered no major initiatives for improving public schools. That’s a jolting departure from past governors.

Lawmakers must slow down and leave the most controversial proposals for a future session when Iowans can be part of the process.

(319) 398-8262; editorial@thegazette.com

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