A monster's lurking in the legislature

Bruce Lear analyzes a bill pending in the Iowa Senate, which would be disastrous for public schools.

We’ve all watched horror movies where the ominous music increases in intensity as the victim walks alone in the dark. The monster is about to attack, and the soda and popcorn are about to fly. 

Well, cue the spooky music and hold onto the snacks because there’s a monster lurking. This one is scary real, and it’s called Iowa Senate File 2369.

This monster bill stabs public schools in the heart, not once but twice. First with an unfunded mandate, then with a private school entitlement scheme. Both parts of this bill siphon dollars from the already underfunded public school system. 

The first, part of this monster is the so-called transparency bill. It would require Iowa teachers to provide “Textbooks, books, articles, syllabi, website links, outlines, handouts, presentations, videos and other education materials for review and approval twice a year.”  Basically, anything used for instruction must be on the school district website by August 23 and again, January 15.

This would allow parents to object to any material, forcing the school district to convene a board hearing to review the material in question. While the hearing is pending, the material cannot be a part of the instruction

According to the nonpartisan Legislative Services Agency, this would cost schools in Iowa an estimated $27.4 million a year because “School districts would need to provide classroom coverage for the time teachers would need to prepare materials for posting or add additional contract days for completion of the work.” It would also require school districts to increase the capabilities of their websites and have a full time IT person to manage the content.

Ironically, the bill to provide transparency is about as opaque as it gets. The only thing the two parts of this bill have in common is both parts attack public schools.

The second part of the bill is Governor Kim Reynolds’ voucher scheme, renamed “student first scholarships.” Both parts of the bill should scare every parent of kids to public school: it’s bad public policy and would harm the public school in every Iowa community. Here’s how.

The curriculum requirement

Right now, parents can find out what is going on in class. It’s called communicating with the school district through parent teacher conferences, email and asking their own kids what’s happening at school. Most districts have grading portals where parents are able to check on grades and what assignments a student may be missing.

If a parent wants to complain about material used in class, districts have board policies about how that may be done. Many teachers correspond with parents and students online about what’s happening in class.

This proposal is simply not workable. It would literally mean that a social studies teacher couldn’t talk about the Ukraine invasion because it wasn’t known on August 23 or January 15. Teaching requires flexibility. I know the term “teachable moment” has become a cliché, but it’s real. A teacher must be flexible enough to seize those moments becomes that’s when learning magic happens. Teaching is part art and part science.  

Teachers need to know the kids in their classes. Asking teachers to lay out everything they plan to teach and at what pace they plan to teach it, is like asking a doctor to diagnose a patient without ever seeing them. It’s bad practice disguised as transparency.

The pace of instruction depends on the students. Many times, a teacher realizes they must slow instruction because when they check for understanding, they see there are problems with comprehension. Other times, students breeze through a concept, and a teacher can increase the pace to keep a class from being bored.

Some legislators who haven’t stepped foot in a school, say colleges and universities provide syllabuses for each course and don’t see a problem with K-12 doing it too. First, college professors don’t include all of what they teach. They provide a broad outline. Those professors may teach two or three classes a semester, public school teachers teach six or seven classes a day, and elementary teachers teach even more.

This part of the law will harm all public schools but rural school more. Most rural districts do not have dedicated tech departments. They may have one person dedicated to tech and a few teachers willing to help their colleagues. This bill would require a massive retooling of school district websites. That’s a huge burden and a huge expense for a solution in search of a problem.

The voucher entitlement

Those private school advocates who are lobbying for the passage need to be careful what they wish for. Public school administrators have come to realize that when they accept funding, it comes with strings attached. Private schools are private for a reason. Most parents want their religious values reinforced at school. Another group of parents want their kids to be in class with other high achieving kids. Both can happen because private schools may choose to accept of reject students.

Right now, Iowa has a private school friendly governor and legislature. That could change and the strings for funding may become chains, that are hard to live with and impossible to escape.

Most private schools are mainline religious schools. That also could change. I’m not sure how the proponents would feel about other not so mainline religions starting private schools with public funding.

The idea, that this bill would provide choice to students with Individual Education Programs (IEP’s) and those who otherwise who couldn’t afford it, is a myth.  There is nothing in this new law that requires schools to accept students with IEP’s. Most have few services for those students. To start those programs would certainly cost more than the $5,359 voucherThe average private high school in Iowa charges $9,033 for tuition. There is also no provision in this bill that caps tuition at the voucher amount.

I hadn’t thought of private vs. public funding this way until a friend suggested it. How would the public react if the street paving crew decided to pave some private driveways for people using public road money. My guess is it wouldn’t sit well with the public.

Republicans always have valued accountability for public money. There are no provisions in the bill that require private schools to be accountable for the public money they spend.

So, is this monster attack inevitable? It’s not, but just closing our eyes and hoping isn’t enough. Here are some ideas to stop the monster.

  • Lobby against this bill and similar bills pending in the Iowa House. Use simple terms but explain how this could destroy the once proud Iowa public school legacy.
  • Choose a candidate who really supports public schools and help them campaign. Even if you hate politics, now is the time to say enough is enough and put your thoughts into action.
  • Get involved with the public schools. Show up for parent teacher conferences. Read the newsletters, visit schools. Partner with teachers.
  • Talk to your friends at church, at happy hour, and anyplace there is conversation about the threats.
  • Vote for real public-school advocates in the next election.

Monsters attack because people venture out alone.  It’s a community problem and we should speak as a community about why public schools are worth protecting.

Bruce Lear lives in Sioux City. He has been connected to public schools for 38 years. He taught for eleven years and represented educators as an Iowa State Education Association Regional Director for 27 years until retiring.

About the Author(s)

Bruce Lear

  • Monsters

    You have the natural ability to make complex issues easier to understand. Thanks for keeping your pen in the sad game. Reynolds et al are simply trying to destroy public education.

  • During one autumn several decades ago...

    …the kids in my grade school were terrorized for a couple of months by “The Green Monster,” rumored to be lurking in the school when it wasn’t creeping through the surrounding neighborhood. The school distributed mimeographed info sheets to parents about the scare, which gradually went away.

    The graphic for this post shows just the kind of green monster that we kids were afraid of. Fortunately, that Green Monster was imaginary. Thank you, Bruce, for your determined ongoing efforts to fight today’s child-threatening monsters, the ones that are real.