Pat O’Donnell is a resident of Sioux Center and spent 37 years serving in Iowa public schools as a teacher, principal and superintendent. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. A version of this commentary first appeared in the N’west Iowa Review.
“Foundation in Education” was the motto on the Iowa quarter issued in 2004. In my thirty-seven years serving in Iowa public schools as a teacher, principal, and superintendent, I was so proud to be an educator in a state that valued education as much as this one.
Yet, despite what the Iowa quarter says, our state’s “Foundation in Education” is under assault.
IOWA’S PUBLIC SCHOOLS ARE UNDERFUNDED
Iowa currently spends $1,300 less in state funding per student than the national average. The state is already failing to provide adequate support for public education. Teachers and kids feel the impact of underfunding in the classroom every day.
For years, state aid to public schools has lagged behind rising costs, and now the schools are at the breaking point.
After Iowa adopted the public school funding formula in 1973, state funding for public K-12 schools increased by less than 3 percent only six times over the first 38 years, according to data compiled by the nonpartisan Legislative Services Agency.
Since Republicans gained control of the Iowa House and the governor’s office in 2011, lawmakers have increased K-12 school funding by less than 3 percent in nine out of ten years. That’s well below the level schools need to keep up with inflation rate. Iowa ranks 40th in the increase in per pupil spending nationally.
NEW VOUCHER PROGRAM WILL BE COSTLY
Governor Kim Reynolds signed the “Students First Act,” establishing a school voucher program, in January. That law will have a devastating impact on Iowa’s public schools. Public schools educate 93 percent of the Iowa’s K-12 students, while less than 7 percent attend private schools.
While public schools have been underfunded for years, Republicans allocated $107 million to fund the new “education savings accounts” during fiscal year 2024. (Editor’s note: It now appears the program’s cost will exceed that estimate next year.)
The Legislative Services Agency has estimated that education savings accounts could cost the state $132 million in year two, $295 million in year three (when there will be no income limits for participating families), to $345 million in year four. In other words, the state will spend nearly $1 billion from its budget over the first four years of the program alone.
That new money will have to come from somewhere and will most likely come from squeezing the education budget for public schools. For rural schools already struggling to stay open and provide programs and services, this will be devastating.
Vouchers will not increase educational choice. The majority of these vouchers will benefit wealthy families whose children are already attending private schools. An estimated 85 percent of the funds will go to families whose children are already attending private schools.
Some private schools are increasing tuition for next school year as a result of the new law. Des Moines area Catholic schools plan to raise tuition by up to 10 percent in the 2023-24 school year. Tuition at Dowling Catholic High School, for example, is growing from $9,132 to $9,588 plus fees for parish-participating students, and from $12,500 to $13,416 for families not connected to the parish.
As private schools raise their tuition, it is clear that the new law is a scheme to fund private institutions, not increase educational choice for Iowa students. Low-income students will not benefit, because even with an education savings account, the cost will still be out of reach. There is no expectation that private schools will offer more spots for additional students.
Like any private school voucher program, Iowa’s new law lacks sufficient oversight. The public does not know exactly how the program will work, other than a third-party out-of-state vendor will administer it and give funds to parents to spend on tuition and other educational services which includes saving the government handout in a college fund. This could mean debit cards or bank accounts.
The public does not know if or how these accounts will be audited to prevent fraud, as has happened other states implementing similar programs. There are no requirements for private schools to admit all students or conform to state educational standards, or public meeting and reporting requirements. Private schools do not have to accept or continue to educate students with disabilities, or students from any protected class according to state and federal civil rights law.
THE INFLUENCE OF OUT-OF-STATE GROUPS
A friend asked me why Iowa would do this. It was not a response to popular demand; a majority of Iowans opposed the voucher plan. Rather, outside groups influenced the legislature and governor.
If you have been watching, Republican lawmakers in at least 34 states so far this year have proposed legislation to create or expand tax-funded programs to help parents cover the cost of private education, according to FutureEd, a think tank at Georgetown University’s McCourt School of Public Policy. All are remarkably similar in the construction and talking points.
In addition, other proposed or passed policies also have been promoted in these states such as restrictions on LGBTQ curriculum, book bans, and limiting discussion of important topics in history such as systemic racism and the near genocide of the native people.
Here are the outside players dictating legislation in Iowa politics:
Project Blitz is a coalition of over 40 Christian right groups, including the Congressional Prayer Caucus Foundation, the National Legal Foundation, and Wall-builders Pro-Family Legislators Conference. Founded by Randy Forbes, the group states that it seeks to “protect the free exercise of traditional Judeo-Christian religious values and beliefs in the public square, and to reclaim and properly define the narrative which supports such beliefs.” It is rooted in Christian nationalist ideology. Project Blitz also operates as “Freedom for All” and as part of the “First Freedom Coalition.”
The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) is a nonprofit organization of conservative state legislators and private sector representatives who draft and share model legislation for distribution among state governments in the United States.
ALEC provides a forum for state legislators and private sector members to collaborate on model bills, draft legislation that members may customize and introduce for debate in their own state legislatures.
ALEC has produced model bills on a broad range of issues, such as reducing regulation and individual and corporate taxation, combating illegal immigration, loosening environmental regulations, tightening voter identification rules, weakening labor unions, and opposing gun control. These bills have dominated legislative agendas in states such as Arizona, Wisconsin, Colorado, Michigan, New Hampshire, and Maine.
Approximately 200 model bills become law each year. ALEC also serves as a networking tool among certain state legislators, allowing them to research conservative policies implemented in other states. Some state ALEC legislators say the organization converts campaign rhetoric and nascent policy ideas into legislative language.
Corey A. DeAngelis is a self-proclaimed school choice evangelist from San Antonio. Mr. DeAngelis is a political mercenary providing support for the states promoting the same voucher plan. Mr. DeAngelis has appeared in many photo ops with Iowa’s governor.
An in-state organization housed at Dordt University in Sioux Center is the Center for the Advancement of Christian Education (CACE), lobbied for vouchers not only in Iowa but in other states as well.
The governor and some prominent Republicans have sometimes disparaged the work done in public schools. One famously accused public educators of having a “sinister agenda.” Others have accused teachers of “grooming” kids to be transgender or pushing a “woke” agenda. (I have asked many people who use “woke” to define the term, but have yet to receive a definition.)
Public school employees are dedicated, caring people who accept the challenge of teaching all students, regardless of the socio-economic status, disability, language, religion, national origin, or gender identity.
Republican legislators in Idaho, Iowa, Louisiana, Missouri, New Hampshire, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, and West Virginia have drafted bills that would ban the teaching of what they deem “divisive” or “racist and sexist” concepts. The bills use similar language as an executive order former President Donald Trump put in place to restrict diversity trainings for federal workers.
Every day, parents send their most valued possessions, their children, to public schools and everyday public-school employees accept them for who they are. Every child deserves a good education, whether the parent chooses public, private, or home-school education. However, the choices of the few should not negatively impact the many.
Ted Koppel, the longtime anchor for “Nightline” and news anchor for ABC, noted, “the impact of lack of information is going to accrue to the benefit of the most unscrupulous candidate.”
In my small sample size of interactions, I have found that individuals are unaware of the impetus behind the bills Iowa Republicans enacted during this year’s legislative session. I find that disturbing that voters are electing politicians whose actions will have a devastating impact on institutions such as public schools.
Derek W. Black wrote in 2020, “The declining commitment to properly fund public education and the well-financed political agenda to expand vouchers and undermine the operations of public schools—threaten not just public education but American democracy itself.”
Iowa’s “Foundation in Education” may never be the same.
Top image of Iowa’s quarter available via Wikimedia Commons.