Two Republican trifectas, 50 years apart, reshaped Iowa's K-12 schools. But whereas the legislature and Governor Robert Ray put public education on a more equitable, better funded path during the early 1970s, this year's legislative session left public schools underfunded and unable to meet the needs of many marginalized students.
Governor Kim Reynolds capped a devastating year for Iowa's schools on May 26, when she signed seven education-related bills, including two that will impose many new restrictions while lowering standards for educators and curriculum.
In a written statement, Reynolds boasted, "This legislative session, we secured transformational education reform that puts parents in the driver's seat, eliminates burdensome regulations on public schools, provides flexibility to raise teacher salaries, and empowers teachers to prepare our kids for their future. Education is the great equalizer and everyone involved—parents, educators, our children—deserves an environment where they can thrive.”
Almost every part of the first sentence is false or misleading.
As for the second sentence, this year's policies make it less likely that any of the named groups will thrive, aside from a small subset of parents who share the governor's political and religious outlook.
A PARTISAN APPROACH
When Iowa adopted a new funding formula for K-12 schools in 1971, Governor Ray and state lawmakers were seeking "to equalize educational opportunity, to provide a good education for all the children of Iowa, to provide property tax relief, to decrease the percentage of school costs paid from property taxes, and to provide reasonable control of school costs."
Although Republicans had full control of state government at the time, many stakeholders helped develop the funding model. The complicated formula has been tweaked over time but "has generally been considered equitable on a per-pupil basis across the state."
Similarly, representatives of the governor and legislature engaged many stakeholders when drafting the collective bargaining law adopted in 1974. For more than four decades, that law gave Iowa's public educators a fair shake when contracts were negotiated. (The GOP trifecta eviscerated most public sector bargaining rights in 2017.)
Fast forward to today. The governor and legislature generally did not seek input or accept feedback from stakeholders representing educators, school administrators, public schools, or marginalized populations served by schools. The House and Senate approved most of this year's education bills along party lines, or in near party-line votes. (Some Republicans voted against a few of the bills.) Dozens of organizations were registered against the highest profile measures, such as the school voucher plan and the policy bill containing book bans and "don't say gay" language, while only a handful of organizations (mostly conservative or religious) were registered in favor.
Several of the new laws guarantee that educational opportunity will be unequal going forward.
SCHOOL FUNDING PROBLEMS LIKELY TO WORSEN
Reynolds and other GOP politicians often lament the burdens of the relatively high inflation the U.S. has experienced in recent years. Nevertheless, the legislature approved only a 3 percent increase in state supplemental aid for K-12 schools. That's far below the level of rising costs for school districts, and it continues a decade-long pattern of state aid not keeping pace with inflation.
Moreover, dozens of Iowa school districts will receive less money next year, because of declining enrollment. (The 3 percent increase applies to the per-pupil amount the state will provide for school districts; it doesn't mean every district will receive 3 percent more in state funds.)
Republicans immeasurably compounded the problem by approving the governor's "education savings accounts" proposal in January (House File 68). The state will spend about $107 million on school vouchers during the next fiscal year alone. As the program expands to cover all students attending private schools, regardless of family income, the state will be on track to spend nearly $350 million annually by year four.
That cost could escalate further if more private schools open to take advantage of easy money from the state. Rules recently adopted by the State Board of Education allow the Department of Education to approve fully online private instructional programs for students using education savings accounts.
Vouchers represent a significant tuition subsidy to people who already can afford it — at the expense of public schools charged with educating every Iowa student, no matter their race, religion, income, disability status, sexual orientation or gender identity. How will our public schools — essential to the well-being and productivity of our future workers and community leaders — rebound from this reckless choice?
The squeeze on the state budget will only get worse as Iowa phases in income tax cuts approved in previous years, and potentially loses federal funding as a result of debt ceiling negotiations now happening in Washington, DC. Public education makes up a significant share of state spending, so it could be difficult if not impossible for the legislature to fund K-12 schools adequately by the middle of this decade.
The upshot is that while Reynolds claimed the new state laws will provide "flexibility to raise teacher salaries," many school districts will be forced to cut staff and/or programs in the coming years.
Note: Reynolds has not yet signed the "standings" appropriation bill, which contains a nearly $30 million cut to Iowa's Area Education Agencies. Those agencies provide special education and many other services to public school districts. Democratic State Senator Janet Petersen called on the governor to preserve about $22 million for the Area Education Agencies by using her line-item veto power. Reynolds appears unlikely to do so, however. For one thing, her staff were heavily involved in budget negotiations with Iowa House and Senate leaders. In addition, the governor told reporters on May 16,
“I truly don't believe, if we decide to move forward and sign the bill that that will impact their ability to provide the services at the local level,” Reynolds said. “We appreciate what they do, and we don't foresee any delays in the services that they provide to school districts. So (I) feel confident in that.“
Keep in mind that the AEAs will need to serve more private school students with special needs as the voucher plan rolls out. They don't currently receive any state funding to help students enrolled in private schools.
MORE POWER FOR A SMALL GROUP OF PARENTS
The governor claimed Iowa's new education landscape "puts parents in the driver's seat." But the majority of parents won't benefit from the new laws.
More than 90 percent of Iowa students attend public schools. Even if all of their parents wanted to switch to a private school, there would not be enough openings—especially for students with disabilities or those who need individualized education plans. Dozens of Iowa counties don't contain a single private school, making education savings accounts useless for most residents, unless they want to select a 100 percent virtual option.
In addition, many private schools have jacked up tuition since Reynolds signed the voucher bill. So private school will remain unattainable for many low-income families who may genuinely need state assistance. The majority of the education savings account money would need to be spent on tuition, leaving little left over for other qualifying expenses like textbooks or tutoring. (Families must foot the whole bill for transportation to and from school, which is not a qualifying expense.)
The newly-signed House File 430 adds two parents of currently enrolled students to the State Board of Educational Examiners, which regulates the teaching profession and imposes disciplinary actions. It's a safe bet Reynolds will appoint like-minded conservatives to fill those roles.
What about Senate File 496, the so-called "parental empowerment" bill Reynolds also signed on May 26? It does enshrine in state law parents' "fundamental, constitutionally protected right" to make decisions for their children—as long as those parents aren't seeking gender-affirming care for a transgender or nonbinary child.
Other aspects of the law purport to empower parents by making it easier for them to challenge school library books or curriculum, by forcing schools to out trans students to their families, and by requiring written parental consent for health surveys.
But Senate File 496 tramples on other parents' ability to choose schools that meet their family's needs. Many parents want schools to provide age-appropriate instruction related to sexual orientation or gender identity. They want schools to be able to collect important public health data from a representative population of students. They want books by diverse authors and those covering controversial subjects to remain in the library. They want schools to be required to teach middle- and high-school students about HIV, HPV, and the vaccine that prevents HPV. But the law silences their voices.
The "bathroom bill" Reynolds signed in March (Senate File 482) also elevates the fears and concerns of a subset of parents over those who want schools to be affirming places for transgender and nonbinary Iowans (staff and parents as well as students).
Speaking of which...
SCHOOLS FORCED TO DISCRIMINATE AGAINST LGBTQ STUDENTS, STAFF
The 1970s education reforms were designed to improve equity in Iowa schools. Since the state enacted anti-bullying measures and civil rights protections for sexual orientation and gender identity in the 2000s, some public schools became safer places for LGBTQ students to express themselves.
After signing the latest batch of bills, Reynolds declared education to be "the great equalizer," where "everyone involved [...] can thrive.” But she didn't walk her talk.
By banning instruction related to gender identity and sexual orientation in grades K-6, Senate File 496 will place new burdens on educators, who won't be able to answer simple questions, and may risk losing their job for mentioning same-sex partners. (It's not clear how teachers will explain the new bathroom policy without discussing gender identity in some way.) Students with two moms or two dads may get the message that there's something wrong with their families.
Democratic State Senator Herman Quirmbach argued during Iowa Senate debate on Senate File 496 that it's likely unconstitutional for the state to discriminate by banning schools from offering curriculum that meets the needs of all students. We may find out if anyone challenges the new law in court.
Advocates for LGBTQ Iowans condemned the new laws in statements published in full below. One Iowa's executive director Courtney Reyes said of Senate File 496, "Like many other centerpieces of the Governor’s agenda, this legislation will harm an already vulnerable group of children and will benefit no one."
Iowa Safe Schools pointed out that the bill "erases LGBTQ identity, history, and culture, of students and school employees alike. Research from the Trevor Project has shown that nearly 1 in 3 LGBTQ young people said their mental health was poor most of the time or always due to anti-LGBTQ policies and legislation." That group's executive director Becky Tayler described the bill as "anti-child, anti-parent, and anti-educator," and part of the governor's "crusade against LGBTQ youth."
ABOUT THOSE "BURDENSOME REGULATIONS"
The governor touted the legislature's work to eliminate "burdensome regulations on public schools." She was in part referring to Senate File 391, which gives schools more leeway in certain staff hires and curriculum offerings. Bleeding Heartland discussed that bill in more detail here. To recap: state law no longer requires school districts to make "every reasonable and good faith effort to employ a teacher licensed" in a given subject. Community college teachers can be hired for some subjects. In addition, schools can hire unlicensed librarians who have been previously employed in a public library.
A different bill Reynolds just signed, House File 614, would make it easier for teachers from other states or countries to become licensed educators in Iowa, and would open up alternate licensing paths for military spouses who want to teach. Unlike the high-profile education bills considered this year, House File 614 was not controversial and cleared both the House and Senate unanimously.
On the flip side, Senate File 496 creates many new "transparency" requirements for public school districts (private schools are exempt). Fiscal analysis by the nonpartisan Legislative Services Agency estimated districts across the state may spend tens of millions of dollars to publish all curriculum materials and library books online.
In addition, educators or administrators are subject to many new rules, with possible disciplinary action for violations:
- School libraries may not contain any material with "descriptions or visual depictions of a sex act," which will exclude many works of classic literature;
- Teachers may not offer any instruction related to sexual orientation or gender identity in grades K-6;
- School staff could not affirm a new name or pronouns for a student without written permission from parents, and school administrators must report students' requests to parents or guardians;
- Failure to enforce the "bathroom bill" could also have professional repercussions.
Teachers can reasonably fear that Iowa's new laws will embolden those who try to intimidate educators over other kinds of classroom lessons. Last year, Nick Covington described the pressure campaign that eventually prompted him to quit teaching in Ankeny schools.
I anticipate Iowa's teacher shortage to get worse in the coming years, as many educators look for other kinds of work, or move to states with solid collective bargaining rights and without Republican politicians micromanaging their careers.
PREPARING STUDENTS FOR THE FUTURE?
In the governor's office news release, Reynolds claimed new state policy "empowers teachers to prepare our kids for their future."
That's not how I read many provisions in Senate File 391. High schools will now be required to offer just two years of a foreign language, instead of four. Mandatory fine arts offerings will be reduced. State code no longer requires high schools to offer a course on financial literacy or to teach technology literacy. (In theory, other classes will integrate material on those subjects.)
When the legislature considered this bill, some Senate and House Democrats warned the changes would leave Iowa students less prepared to enter a diverse workforce, with less relevant experience for fields like publishing, advertising, and media.
Republicans countered that schools will still have the option to offer the same courses available now. But given the budgetary pressures mentioned above, it's likely that many districts will have no choice but to cut certain programs as state funding fails to keep up with rising costs.
All in all, 2023 will rightly be remembered as a transformational year for Iowa's education system. But despite the governor's triumphant rhetoric, the Republican trifecta made it harder for public schools to help students and communities thrive.
Appendix 1: May 26 news release from governor's office
Gov. Reynolds Signs Several Bills Related to Education
DES MOINES – Gov. Reynolds released the following statement after signing several bills relating to education:
“This legislative session, we secured transformational education reform that puts parents in the driver's seat, eliminates burdensome regulations on public schools, provides flexibility to raise teacher salaries, and empowers teachers to prepare our kids for their future. Education is the great equalizer and everyone involved—parents, educators, our children—deserves an environment where they can thrive.”
Gov. Reynolds signed the following bills into law:
SF 391: A bill for an act relating to education, including modifying provisions related to comprehensive school improvement plans, teacher librarians and guidance counselors, required days or hours of instruction in elementary and secondary schools, agreements between school districts and community colleges to teach certain courses, and required courses in school districts and accredited nonpublic schools, and authorizing school districts to offer sequential units in one classroom.
SF 496: A bill for an act relating to children and students, including establishing a parent’s or guardian’s right to make decisions affecting the parent’s or guardian’s child, authorizing the parent or guardian of a student enrolled in a school district to enroll the student in another attendance center within the same school district in certain specified circumstances, prohibiting instruction related to gender identity and sexual orientation in school districts, charter schools, and innovation zone schools in kindergarten through grade six, and modifying provisions related to student health screenings, school district library programs, the educational program provided to students enrolled in school districts, accredited nonpublic schools, and charter schools, other duties of school districts, accredited nonpublic schools, the department of education, the board of educational examiners, and the governing boards of charter schools and innovation zone schools, competent private instruction, and special education, and including effective date provisions.
HF 135: A bill for an act relating to the responsibilities of the state board of regents and the institutions of higher education governed by the state board of regents, including requiring the board to publish certain information related to the average income and student debt of institution graduates and requiring the institutions to provide the board with information related to the average income and student debt of institution graduates and to adopt procedures that require institutions to provide information related to the average income and student debt of institution graduates to undergraduates.
HF 604: A bill for an act relating to education, including authorizing the ombudsman to investigate complaints received by individuals who hold a license, certificate, authorization, or statement of recognition issued by the board of educational examiners, and modifying the responsibilities of the department of education, school districts, and charter schools.
HF 430: A bill for an act relating to education, including requirements related to mandatory reporters, a process for investigating complaints against school employees, and the responsibilities of the department of education, school districts, charter schools, accredited nonpublic schools, and the board of educational examiners, modifying the membership of the board of educational examiners, and including applicability provisions.
HF 672: A bill for an act relating to certain specified employees of school districts, accredited nonpublic schools, and charter schools, including renewal requirements associated with licenses issued by the board of educational examiners to practitioners with master’s or doctoral degrees, fees associated with the review of certain specified records, and background checks for employees of school districts, accredited nonpublic schools, and charter schools.
HF 614: A bill for an act relating to licenses issued by the board of educational examiners to applicants from other states or countries.
Appendix 2: Iowa Safe Schools statement
Today, SF 496, a bill censoring curriculum relating to gender identity & sexual orientation (K-6), banning books with LGBTQ characters, and “outing” students to their parents was signed into law by Governor Kim Reynolds.
In addition, SF 496 will undercut the Iowa Youth Survey due to requiring parental opt-in for every student. Human growth and development standards are also changed – eliminating requirements for educators to discuss HIV/AIDS prevention and HPV prevention. Ultimately, this bill erases LGBTQ identity, history, and culture, of students and school employees alike. Research from the Trevor Project has shown that nearly 1 in 3 LGBTQ young people said their mental health was poor most of the time or always due to anti-LGBTQ policies and legislation.
“Senate File 496 is anti-child, anti-parent, and anti-educator,” said Becky Tayler, Executive Director for Iowa Safe Schools, who is available upon request. “With the stroke of a pen, Governor Reynolds has punctuated her crusade against LGBTQ youth this session. Her relentless attacks on the LGBTQ community have placed her shameful record adjacent to the infamous Anita Bryant & Fred Phelps.“
Appendix 3: "One Iowa Reacts to Governor’s Signing of Discriminatory Education Policies"
May 26, 2023 [Des Moines, Iowa]— Today Governor Kim Reynolds signed her discriminatory education bill, SF 496, into law. The bill contains measures that restrict information about sexual orientation and gender identity for grades K-6, forcibly outs transgender students, removes information about HIV and HPV from the curricula, and restricts books and materials with any kind of sexual content.
One Iowa Executive Director, Courtney Reyes, condemned the bill in a statement:
“While we are not surprised that the Governor signed her signature bill containing multiple provisions intended to directly discriminate against LGBTQ students, we are still extremely disappointed. Like many other centerpieces of the Governor’s agenda, this legislation will harm an already vulnerable group of children and will benefit no one. The Governor constantly cites the film Field Of Dreams but maybe she needs to rewatch it. The people banning books in that movie are the villains not the heroes.
I am surprised by the Governor’s cowardice of signing this bill and the other two explicitly anti-trans bills behind closed doors. She is not willing to look trans kids in the eyes and tell them that she does not want them in our state. Governor Reynold’s has made it clear that she is willing to run on an anti-LGBTQ platform to win votes, but is not willing to give the people that she works for the time of day.
The Governor still has a chance to reduce the harm her agenda is causing with two of the bills now on her desk. She needs to line-item veto Division V from HF 731 so that our universities can continue their diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts unimpeded from state legislators. And she needs to sign HF 602 to add the suicide hotline to student ID cards. This measure is needed now more than ever as we monitor increasing levels of distress and self harm associated with her anti-LGBTQ legislative proposals.”
Appendix 4: May 26 news release from Interfaith Alliance of Iowa
Des Moines, IA – Connie Ryan, executive director of the Interfaith Alliance of Iowa, released the following statement regarding Governor Kim Reynolds signing SF496:
“The majority of Iowans believe in the worth and dignity of all people and their fundamental civil and human rights. SF496, signed today by Governor Kim Reynolds, is not only contrary to those values but serves to trample on basic rights.
“Fair-minded and compassionate Iowans are disappointed in Iowa’s governor and Republican lawmakers that once again chose to target LGBTQ children and public school educators for political gain.
“SF496 will go down in history as one of the most mean-spirited and harmful bills ever to become Iowa law. Erasing the existence of LGBTQ children and families in school curriculum. Outing transgender children and potentially placing them in harms’ way. Eliminating the rights of parents and students by banning books. Disrespecting public school educators.
“SF496 is part of a long list of damaging bills passed by Republican lawmakers this year that will cause great harm to Iowa’s children, families, and communities. Republican legislators and Governor Kim Reynolds carry the full responsibility for the harm done today and in the future – not only for Iowa’s LGBTQ community, but also to our state’s reputation that can no longer claim to be welcoming or Iowa nice. It is a sad day for Iowa.”
Appendix 5: May 26 statement from Iowa State Education Association
ISEA Statement in Response to Governor Reynolds signing education-related bills today
“Today, with her veto power, Governor Reynolds had an opportunity to support the thousands of great education professionals who work hard to educate, support, and elevate the students in their care. She chose not to exercise this power, and instead, cemented laws that are designed to intimidate, censor, and harm the educators and students who work in and attend our public schools.
We are disappointed that partisan politics and pressure from national anti-public education groups with cookie-cutter legislation is more important than the needs of the almost half-million students who will be negatively impacted,” said Iowa State Education Association President, Mike Beranek.
Top photo: Governor Kim Reynolds signs a bill increasing penalties for fentanyl-related crimes on May 16, in a photo originally published on her official Facebook page. The governor signed the education-related bills discussed in this piece in private and did not release any images.