How "Party of Destruction" is hurting Iowa's public schools

Steve King was a teacher in Algona for 23 years and a UniServ Director with the Iowa State Education Association, serving rural school districts, Area Education Agencies, and community colleges in northwest and north central Iowa before retiring in 2012.

I am an Iowan. I was born here. I grew up here. I went to school here. I graduated from Iowa State. I worked here. And I have retired here. Heck, I don’t even like to travel out of state. I love Iowa. Well, maybe not January and February. But most of the rest of the time, count me all in.

But I am not living in the same Iowa. That state has disappeared.

I have spent my life in rural Iowa. My “urban” experience was my time at Iowa State. Winterset, Algona, and Hartley are most definitely rural Iowa. That is my life, my life of choice. And in that lifestyle there were always a few constants—rocks, if you will—that we could rely upon.

Most families went to church. We practiced our beliefs and never told anyone else how to practice theirs.

Of course, there was agriculture. Most people in rural Iowa farm, worked in farm industries, owned businesses that supported farmers, or were more profitable and prosperous when farmers did well. It was, and still is the heart or rural Iowa from county seats to smaller communities.

But mostly, Iowa had education. It was our core. We were usually among the top five systems in the nation in most measures. Well, not in teacher’s salaries, but that is another story. People from all over the nation studied and modeled the Iowa Public Education system. We were the standard. Students took the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills or the Iowa Tests of Educational Development. Be like Mike? No. Be like Iowa!

Alas, this is not the Iowa we see today in education. So, what happened? Politics happened. One party, the Republican Party, more aptly named the “Party of Destruction,” decided attacking education would get them more votes. So they decided to fix education in Iowa, the gold standard for the country. They were going to “fix” something that was not broken.

Instead, they broke it.

First, legislators have consistently underfunded the public schools. State funding increased by less than the actual costs for schools. Maybe a half percent less or shorting schools a full percent, but it was always less than schools needed. Over time it became significant.

Another reason Iowa’s schools remain underfunded: the state relies on student enrollment to determine the funding schools receive. In rural Iowa, enrollments are almost universally declining.

To make ends meet, rural Iowa schools have to share, reorganize, or, in extreme cases, dissolve. Students are forced to drive or be driven more miles, and for longer, to get their education. That is a burden on rural families.

The parties have sparred over funding forever. It hurts rural and urban schools while benefiting the rich suburbs, university towns, and a few economic growth areas.

But the politics is the killer, and it is deliberate. It is destroying Iowa at its core by harming public education, especially in rural Iowa.

The Party of Destruction rails about imagined problems impacting public schools. They have virtually made teachers at-will employees. They have attacked teachers in every manner imaginable. It is not a coincidence teachers are in short supply in almost all disciplines. And their answer to a shortage created by low wages, poor benefits, and poor working conditions is to lower standards for admission to the teaching profession.

But the Party of Destruction’s latest knife to the throat of rural Iowa is Governor Kim Reynolds’ school voucher plan. It takes some of my tax dollars (why I am mad) and some of your tax dollars (why you should be mad) to give to parents of students enrolled in Iowa’s private (mostly parochial) schools. The Education Savings Account costs $7,826 per student for the coming year. That amount will increase every year, in line with per pupil state funding for public schools.

The hundreds of millions of dollars that fund this massive giveaway mostly don’t go to rural Iowans. Most of the funds go to the urban and suburban parents who send their kids to private schools that are relatively close to where they live.

It is welfare for the wealthy.

The estimated cost for the voucher scheme has proven to be very wrong. The first year of the program was supposed to cost the state about $107 million, but actually cost about $128 million. The cost for fiscal year 2025 (which begins in July) was originally projected to be $132.2 million but now is estimated at $179.2 million. That is total fiscal irresponsibility, but it rewards the Party of Destruction’s major donors. And it pleases the governor’s out-of-state donors.

What does this policy do to Iowa, particularly rural Iowa?

First, it shifts millions of your tax dollars to the suburban private and parochial schools. It is taking your taxes to benefit of a few. Secondly, it limits even further the available resources for your rural public schools. For the coming year, that’s $179 million (and growing) that could have been applied to the needs of public school. Third, more rural schools will close.

The Party of Destruction has imposed this boondoggle on Iowa citizens. One hundred percent of taxpaying Iowans are footing the bill for school vouchers. The policy benefits a small minority who already have withdrawn their students from public schools, and who mostly support the Party of Destruction. And there is zero accountability for how the money is spent.

State leaders have turned their back on rural Iowa by endangering its public school system. That is the Party of Destruction’s deliberate policy.

No one emulates Iowa education anymore.

Where has Iowa gone?

About the Author(s)

Steve King

  • Governor of Destruction

    Governor Reynolds’s eliminated the rural lawmakers who voted against the vouchers during the first vote by pushing them out in their primaries. In Tama County the representative who voted for vouchers is planning to collect the money from them in his own private school. Money that has NO OVERSIGHT. If the administrators decide to uses voucher money to go to a conference in Maui, nothing is stopping them.

  • Yes, and progressive liberals did not help either

    Progressive liberals fought to close schools during Covid, and supported remote learning that put most kids behind, especially those from poor, diverse single parent families.

    Progressive liberals told us that spending millions in National searches to hire diverse school admins would magically improve our schools. The strategy is failing spectacularly, with expensive admins underperforming and resigning after a few years.

    Between Republicans who bleed our school funding towards private schools and Democrats who waste it, the education of our kids is suffering a double whammy. And Iowa universities are on their way to become a shadow of what they were 30 years ago.

  • Dead Children

    Guess Karl M wanted dead children for the sake of education. Yes! Over 17,000 children have died due to COVID. But it was inconvenient for parents as they actually had to care for their children full time and be fully vested in their education. That’s why education dropped, PARENTS dropped the ball because it was too hard. Time for people to take responsibility for their actions. But I noticed the current generation of parents are too self absorbed.

  • Blame the parents

    Kathy blames the parents for the schools failing them. She suggests that schools closed to protect kids, while we were told that schools were closing to protect the elderly. Covid was dangerous to very different groups than the immense majority of the kids. I understand the desire to rewrite history, but parents will remember for long who failed their kids.

  • Thank you but look further

    Thank you Steve for this heartfelt column. I urge you to look beyond the Iowa Party of Destruction to the causes of their destruction, the American Legislative Exchange Council, the so-called Iowans for Prosperity, the Koch Brothers, the Family Leader and their national funder Ralph Reed and the whole dark money network of right-wing donors. They are the drivers nationally of these deliberately destructive policies. The Iowa Party of Destruction takes their money and does their bidding.

  • Well done Steve

    Here at Bleeding Heartland the audience and the choir are one of the same. If every reader could choose five (or ten) potential choir members to read Steve’s essay, we progressives might build a base of vocal commitment to democracy and its evangelists, our public schools. PS. Karl M. Progressives did not close schools during the pandemic, Covid and legitimate public health concerns did. Some schools may have been over cautious, but when we see thousand dying every day, it’s not hard to be cautious. Had it gone the other way, like a scourge of polio or measles, the same parents who blame schools for closing would be the first to sue. COVID 19 was, and remains, a novel variety of a dangerous coronavirus, for which there was no vaccine and little scientific understanding, while the president was suggesting we drink Clorox and the governor flailed away, more willing to align with rightwing spooks than the local doctors.