Iowa parents, wake up and save your schools!

Gerald Ott of Ankeny was a high school English teacher and for 30 years a school improvement consultant for the Iowa State Education Association.

The headline of the May 27 Bleeding Heartland post was jarring and depressing. 

When Laura Belin wrote, “Iowa schools may never recover from the 2023 legislative session,” she predicted a bleak future for Iowa and its youngsters. Devastatingly so, because these same youngsters, mostly public school students, will soon sit on school boards and in the Capitol chambers or governor’s office being charged with carrying forward the state’s business into the second half of the 21st century.

Initially, Laura takes her readers back to the glory days of Governor Robert Ray (in office 1969-1983) when refugees were welcomed and progressive legislation for public schools, students, and their teachers not only seemed possible, but actually passed. 

Speaking for myself, I thought the era was standard operation policy for state government, and that the lobbying muscle it took to get good things passed, like the Public Employment Relations Act (1974), was normal and governmental goodwill never-ending.

Educators then had more muscle with 40,000 union members—more than the Iowa Farm Bureau, for example—and good things got done. In the 1960s, the legislature created the community college system and adequately funded public universities. In the 1970s, the legislature created the special ed-serving area education agencies, improved the public pension system known as IPERS, protected teachers’ job security, and (as Laura says) “put public education on a more equitable, better funded path.”

Of this year’s legislative session, Laura writes: “It left public schools underfunded and unable to meet the needs of many marginalized students.” Without saying as much, we can see Kim Reynolds is no Bob Ray, nor is she a Terry Branstad (the way he governed through 1998). She is a calculating politician, unconcerned about the state’s future, and looks only to match the ruthlessness of her red-state colleagues, plus curry favor with GOP presidential candidates as they tramp across the state. 

In short, Kim Reynolds has intentionally put Iowa’s entire public education system at risk of collapse. No joke.

As Laura puts it, Reynolds capped “a devastating year for Iowa’s schools, when she signed seven education-related bills, including two that will impose many new restrictions while lowering standards for educators and curriculum.” Laura enumerates the devastation under six categories. Read her full essay. The details are ruinous, especially to a state once thought to be first-in-the-nation, at least in student test scores. The six are: 

  • A PARTISAN APPROACH (the governor’s right-wing agenda was supported only by her Republican colleagues)
  • SCHOOL FUNDING PROBLEMS LIKELY TO WORSEN (unmerited tax cuts and erosion of school funding do not bode well for the future)
  • MORE POWER FOR A SMALL GROUP OF PARENTS (i.e. book-hating and Bible-thumping puritans who don’t care about the common good)
  • SCHOOLS FORCED TO DISCRIMINATE AGAINST LGBTQ STUDENTS, STAFF (painful, possibly illegal, discrimination)
  • ABOUT THOSE "BURDENSOME REGULATIONS" (fewer courses taught, fewer teachers, larger classes)
  • PREPARING STUDENTS FOR THE FUTURE? (The 3Rs and religious instruction are insufficient for a child’s future)

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. Laura cites the governor’s Education Savings Accounts as one example of devastation. As the ESA program expands to cover all students attending private schools, Laura explains, regardless of family income, the state will be on track to spend nearly $350 million annually by year four. With income and property tax cuts (as attractive as a cut might be), public services will be underfunded and subject to closure. 

In my view, the school voucher law provides more political allure and blue-sky promises than practical opportunity.

  1. The governor’s proposition is that private schools are somehow superior to public schools. Not true. It’s a self-serving falsehood.
  2. With the exception of the top-rated Maharishi School (Fairfield) and Rivermont Collegiate (Davenport), both of which are small boarding schools, all the top-rated private schools in Iowa are Christian or parochial schools.  
  3. The desks in these schools are already full of the kids of tithing parishioners who have always paid the freight, or subsidized, for their children to receive the school’s religious training.
  4. These kids are already in a private school and their parents will be first in line to get reimbursed with public money for their tuition costs.
  5. Parents of kids who struggle in regular schools, or have special needs, should not get their hopes up. Unless the child is gifted or an athletic, he/she will be put on a wait list. The governor wants to cut funding for the Area Education Agencies that serve students with special needs.
  6. If a parent is looking for a top-notch SECULAR private day school — one not intimidated by the rightwing, one that embraces diversity and inclusion, and whose curriculum is comprehensive and library shelves not barren of Black history or LBGTQ titles — then don’t look in Iowa. 
  7. These parents will have to look to the very few out-of-state privates like Pembroke Hill School in Kansas City, where enrollment has a waiting list and the tuition is $28K/year, or The Blake School in Minneapolis, where tuition is $40K.
  8. The best bet for all parents is to work to restore full faith and confidence in their local public schools. The religious right, with the governor’s blessing, is trying to close your kids’ local school. The right wing does not want kids to be well educated citizens. No exaggeration.
  9. This recovery will require a complete political realignment, starting with the 2024 election.

To bring about this realignment, parents (regardless of religious faith, zip code, or prior worries about COVID-19 mitigation policies such as masks) must embrace a vision for their own children’s future. A future where they can thrive in a technologically advanced society, and where democracy and “justice for all” are the basic standards.

Parents must reject the notion that every kid should be in a private school, and discard the politically charged notion that public schools are "woke" (whatever that is), and abandon QAnon conspiracies and the book-banning fetishes they spawn. Do this instead:

  • Invite all children into the joy of learning and the love of creativity and discovery
  • Commit to making every local school a safe place for constructive dialogue and courageous conversations where all perspectives are encouraged and discomfort is understood as a catalyst for learning and growth
  • Give yourselves and others grace and accept that mistakes are a part of the learning process and believe that, as educators and parents, we are responsible for providing individuals with opportunities to learn from their mistakes
  • Cultivate a diverse, equitable and inclusive community in which all individuals can realize their greatest potential
  • Devote ourselves to building an educational environment that fosters belonging and nourishes emotional, social and physical well-being

By the way, those are the actual goals of the progressive, private Pembroke Hill School in Kansas City. All public schools and the communities that support them should strive to achieve these goals. Parents can make it happen. Just do it.

Top photo of a happy family in a park at sunset is by altanaka and available via Shutterstock.

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