Don't bring a spoon to a knife fight

Bruce Lear lives in Sioux City and has been connected to Iowa's 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

The poet Maya Angelou said it best: “When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time.”

For the third straight year, Governor Kim Reynolds told Iowa she wanted public money to fund private schools.  She told us who she was. The 52 percent of Iowans who oppose public funds for private school costs should have believed her and voted for her opponent last year.

But the election is over, and we still need to protect our public schools. 

How did the governor get her voucher bill passed?

Reynolds' tactics combined persuasive messaging with raw power.

Although it’s difficult for me to admit, we can learn from the governor's methods. First, she copied her messaging from Arizona and Florida and packaged her voucher scheme with two words Americans love, “choice” and “competition.”  

Americans demand lots of choice. That’s why Iowa towns with three or more stoplights have about six different places to eat and about eight brands of church.   

Ironically, even without the voucher law, Iowa parents had a lot of choice for their children’s education. They could open enroll to another public school and there’s no deadline for that decision. They could home school, and in some districts, they could learn remotely.

But Reynolds packaged her plan as giving low-income parents the same choice as their rich neighbors. Never mind that 41 of Iowa's 99 counties have no private school, the voucher funds couldn't be used for transportation costs, and the private school has no obligation to accept them even with a voucher.

The governor's spin might make a normal person dizzy, but not an ambitious politician trying to step into the national spotlight. When Reynolds looks in the mirror, she sees a vice president.

The second messaging piece was allowing the public and the private schools to compete for students. After all, the free-market system is built on competition. Reynolds ignored critics who pointed out one competitor had no control over the raw product it accepted, while the other could pick and choose. It’s a little like the Kansas City Chiefs squaring off against the best Iowa high school team. Both are football teams, both have the same distance to the goal, but one has multi-millionaire recruits and high-paid coaches.

For two years in a row, the governor's plan failed to garner enough support in the Iowa House. She knew the term “voucher” held an ugly reputation, so she never uttered the word. Instead of calling it what it was, she called the plan “Education Savings Accounts.”  After all, savings accounts are safe, understandable, and reliable. 

Then Reynolds silenced anyone from her party who went off script.  

Treading where no predecessor had gone, Reynolds interfered in her own parties’ legislative primaries, targeting rural Republican lawmakers who blocked her plan. Most of her endorsed candidates won the GOP nominations, and that scared other opponents back in line. The governor also ratcheted up the pressure through private meetings in January with some of the holdouts in the Iowa House.

She had help from Iowa House Speaker Pat Grassley. He formed a special Education Reform Committee, so the regular House Education Committee never touched the bill. By changing a longstanding chamber rule, Grassley made sure the bill could be rammed through without going through the Appropriations or Ways and Means committees. The fiscal note from the nonpartisan Legislative Services Bureau (estimating the bill's costs) wasn’t available until the morning of the day House members voted.

It was a knife fight and opponents were fighting with spoons.

What’s next?

Reynolds and her allies aren’t done stabbing public education. The voucher bill is in the rear view mirror, and now the governor and her minions have time to mold public education to fit their narrow ideology.

Craven politicians often like to punch down on those who they perceive as different. Even though this session is only a few weeks old, there are so many bills attacking LGBTQ kids, it’s hard to keep track. They are all Iowa’s children, whatever their sexual orientation. They deserve a safe public school to grow and learn. These attacks are shameful and mean. 

But there’s much more. The purpose of these bills is to put doubts in the minds of parents about what’s happening in public school.  With no evidence ever produced, these are designed to scare people. This tactic worked last year, so why not try it again?

In 2021, Iowa Republicans enacted the so-called “divisive concepts" bill. It banned certain concepts about racism and sexism in mandatory diversity training. Despite a clause in the bill that exempted curriculum materials, the governor and other Republicans intended the bill to chill classroom discussions about those topics. 

Now, House Study Bill 112 assesses monetary penalties of $500 to $5,000 for public school districts found to be violating this law. The bill allows parents, and students to report violations on the Iowa Department of Education's website, and the agency will rule on the complaint.  

This is a direct attack on school districts, teachers, and freedom of speech, with no due process included. Even if a district is cleared, the name of the district would be provided in a report to the legislature. This kind of abuse will spur more teachers and administrators to head for the exits.

Last year, as the book banning pandemic began raging through the GOP, Iowa Senate President Jake Chapman proposed jailing teachers and librarians for making what he considered pornography available to students. He lost his 2022 re-election bid.

Now, fresh from her 19-point victory in the governor's race, Reynolds says that if one school district bans a book, it should be removed from all public schools. It’s a one size fits all approach abandoning all pretense of local control. A book removed from library shelves in Pella would be kept from students in Iowa City. 

Reynolds should take a lesson from Chapman. In politics, “It’s a short walk from the hallelujah to the hoot.” Aside from her “Moms for Liberty” friends, most Iowans trust their teachers.

What can we do?

The battle to stop the voucher bill may be in the rear-view mirror, but the fight continues. 

Remember, politicians have a record. They show us who they are. When it’s time to vote, show them who you are. Tell the public-school story at legislative forums and during visits to the capitol.

Fill legislators' emails with specific examples of how public schools work. Invite GOP lawmakers to be teaching assistants for a day. I’m not talking about having them come in to have doughnuts with the principal and observe. I mean getting involved. Invite them to spend a day in a classroom. If they don’t respond, invite them again, again. If they say no or don’t respond, make it public through social media. Although some politicians are shameless, others may listen. 

Public school advocates can’t spend their days polishing spoons. We need to sharpen our own knives through messaging and organizing. Let’s use some of Kim Reynolds’ tactics to protect public schools and the kids in them. It’s worth the fight, because Iowa’s future depends on it.

Top photo provided by Bruce Lear and published with permission.

  • Gov. Reynolds

    To quote President Obama "elections have consequences." Bottom line is she won handily and is implementing the changes she campaigned on. IDP needs to compete statewide or she will be re-elected to yet another term.

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