What is our shared public education vision?

Heather Matson: It is abundantly clear that the governor and many Republican legislators are only listening to the Iowans who agree with them. -promoted by Laura Belin

It’s often said that “a crisis is a terrible thing to waste." I am deeply disappointed, and quite frankly, furious, that what Iowans heard from Governor Kim Reynolds in her Condition of the State speech was a decision to cynically use the challenges we have faced over the last year as a means to further divide us and score long sought-after political points. And she is doing it under the euphemistic guise of “school choice.”

Let’s be clear: The governor, with the support of House and Senate Republicans, is continuing a war on public education in the state of Iowa. They have no idea of a shared vision for our state, and especially one for public education, which I will get to at the end, so please stick with me. 

But first, a few thoughts on the Republican proposals. 

What happened to local control?

Requiring 100 percent in-person learning was expected, given Reynolds' past comments on the subject. But this one-size fits all approach during a public health crisis ignores the decisions of those who know the needs of their communities best - local elected officials. I am reminded, yet again, that Republicans say they are all for local control...until it doesn’t suit them (see also, the ban on local minimum wage increases and common sense gun safety in community buildings as examples). 

It is abundantly clear that the governor and many Republican legislators (including my own) are only listening to the Iowans who agree with them. During her speech, Reynolds mentioned story after story of parents who are unhappy with their school districts’ decisions and teachers who have made in-person learning work.

She neglects to mention the hundreds of Iowa parents who are contacting her to say they respect local control and are making hybrid and remote learning work because it’s what needs to happen right now. And it seems that she only talks to teachers who in normal times have fifteen kids in a classroom and no one from larger districts who regularly pack 30 to 40 kids in a room meant to hold 20. Cherry-picking stories of people who agree with you is no way to lead, especially in a public health crisis. 

Republicans have offered competing legislation: Senate Study Bill 1064 by State Senator Amy Sinclair and House File 103 by State Representatives Garrett Gobble and John Landon. Both bills are scheduled for subcommittees on January 25 and are expected to move through Education Committees next week.

Both bills remove local control from school boards and put the desires of some individual parents ahead of public health considerations for educators and students. I have deep concerns about both versions; the Senate bill because it is so prescriptive, and the House bill because it is so vague to the point of ambiguity and broad interpretation past this school year. Both create logistical nightmares for administrators.

We all want our kids back in school full-time, and quite frankly, my thoughts so often are “we didn’t have to be here right now.” If Reynolds had led by example and followed through on massive amounts of rapid testing, contact tracing, and mask mandates, we could have this virus under control. And we wouldn’t even be having this argument.

So let’s do the right thing now: get educators and staff vaccinated as soon as possible, fund rapid testing, and require masks statewide so we can safely get our kids back in the building while protecting our educators at the same time. There is no reason for the state legislature to set a terrible precedent in taking away local control from school boards in order to get our kids back in school buildings. 

A voucher by any other name is still a voucher. 

School choice. Education Savings Accounts. Student First Scholarship Program. Call it what you like, but it’s still a voucher program. And if we care at all about a shared vision of public education, we must acknowledge that a voucher program is the last thing we need right now. 

The governor’s omnibus education bill (Senate Study Bill 1065) includes several provisions, most notably the creation of a voucher program for certain students, the establishment of charter schools, and the elimination of voluntary diversity plans (previously called desegregation plans). 

Many education experts and columnists are already talking about how we don’t need vouchers in Iowa; how these programs will divert millions of dollars out of already underfunded public schools into private schools; how the evidence shows that vouchers don’t improve educational outcomes; how this will lead to further consolidation in rural areas; how if we want to improve education, we should actually fund our public schools at the rate they need in order to ensure all our students can succeed. This is all true. But it only scratches the surface. 

A voucher system fundamentally alters our state’s social compact with its people. Our school funding formula, while imperfect and certainly in need of updates, is rightly constructed to focus on the collective good. A set amount is allocated “per pupil” and those dollars flow to a school district based on enrollment. Districts use these public dollars to fund everything from teacher and staff salaries and benefits to paying the electric bill.

As taxpayers, we agree to a social compact: we will fund our public schools so that all children are able to learn and have the tools they need to succeed, which will in turn ensure an educated populace to further our democracy. Our state commitment to public education is our commitment to a system that works for all. 

The problem with the governor’s plan is that vouchers shift the focus of a common good to an individual choice and make it so that school funding works differently for different families. Reynolds and Republican legislators are working to undermine the very foundation of public education. They would have you think that it makes sense to have money follow an individual student as if getting a backpack full of money to use at any school is how school funding works. But it’s not how it works, or how it should work.

Why would it be acceptable for the families receiving vouchers (or a “Student First Scholarship”) to receive a direct payment from the State of Iowa to use at any school, including a private or religious institution, when every other student attending public schools doesn’t receive such a backpack of money? In fact, the governor’s proposal would allow those voucher funds to be used for higher education tuition as well. It’s too bad the remaining public school students wouldn’t be afforded that opportunity. 

I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that vouchers would further perpetuate inequities in our education system. It’s worth a reminder that public schools, by law, take everyone and must follow strict state and federal guidelines on supporting every learner in order to be eligible for taxpayer funding. Private schools can pick their students on any criteria they see fit and aren’t held to all the same requirements. If a private school accepts a student with a state-funded voucher, would they have to follow different guidelines?

And speaking of inequities, this doesn’t even scratch the surface of how private school tuition is more than what a voucher would cover. In other words, this change would do nothing to help poor families, who still wouldn’t be able to afford to send their kids to private school. In the end, the idea of a choice doesn’t play out to a meaningful option for most Iowans. 

Yes, it’s important for families to have choices. We all want the best of our kids - I know I do. But we must remember that school choice already exists in Iowa. In most circumstances, a family can choose to open enroll to another school within a district or out into another district, they can send their child to a private school, or can homeschool with virtually no regulations.

The difference is that no kid gets a backpack full of taxpayer dollars to use wherever they want. Public education doesn’t work that way, because its value rests in all of our success as a whole.  

“Your partner in education”

Here’s the thing: Iowa schools have been underfunded for the last decade. State funding has not kept up with inflation. We’ve seen school consolidation, larger classes, stagnant wages for educators, and cutbacks in school programs to meet budget cuts.

When the GOP legislature gutted collective bargaining for public employees and teachers in 2017, they made it abundantly clear that respect for the teaching profession was no longer something they cared about. And as a consequence, our teacher shortage has only gotten worse. On that note, I highly recommend reading Randy Richardson’s latest column on the topic

The last year has been exceptionally tough for our teachers. We’ve required them to fundamentally change how they teach because of COVID-19, and they have risen to the challenge because they are amazing professionals. Last spring we were all in this together, but by the end of the summer, many were being vilified for wanting a safe workplace. And instead of being supported by their governor with the testing, community mask requirements, PPE, and contact tracing needed to make school buildings as safe as possible, they were basically told they were on their own. 

The other day a neighbor told me about her son’s teacher. He signs every email “your partner in education.” It was a stunningly beautiful statement. All I could think about was how, no matter what, our kids teachers are committed, daily, to being our partners. And it breaks my heart that they have not been treated as such by our state government or even by some community members during this global health crisis. It’s on all of us - parents, teachers, students - to be partners in education. And it requires a shared vision of the public good to make it happen.

What is our shared vision of public education?

A few months ago, I listened to the podcast “Nice White Parents,” which follows the history of a middle school in Brooklyn, New York and offers a candid conversation on race, power, and the decisions made in education that we like to think are made with the best of intentions. As the series came to a close, I was struck by one of the closing arguments offered by the host that has been sitting with me for months: we don’t have a shared vision of public education anymore -- what we have is a shared choice of a vision. We have become so focused on what each individual wants that we’ve forgotten the common good. We’ve neglected community. 

As referenced in the podcast, Horace Mann, considered the father of public education, believed that “America and democracy cannot survive without public education. We need common schools where rich and poor come together to solve problems, generate ‘fellow feeling.’ Public schools, the great equalizer.”

I couldn’t agree more. A high quality public education needs to be in reach for every student in a way that lifts up each school and its educators, as well as each district, rather than pits them against each other as a better “choice." 

Reynolds and Republican legislators have chosen to focus on the choice rather than the shared vision. They don’t explain how these choices would genuinely improve education for all our students. I challenge all of us to think about what a shared vision for public education means and how we can all work to realize it.

It’s up to us to convince members of the legislature that Iowans want the common good. We want a strong, equitable public education system that provides boundless opportunities for our children, respects and empowers teachers, offers a safe workplace and learning environment, and furthers our democracy. We want the social compact.  

Please contact your legislators. Please share your stories and ideas of what a shared vision of public education looks like. And urge them to vote NO on these bills. 

Heather Matson is a former state representative from Ankeny. While in the Iowa House, she served on the Education Committee and the interim School Funding Formula Review Committee. She is a mom to two elementary school aged children. 

Top photo of the Iowa state capitol building by Gregory Dixon, available via Shutterstock.

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