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Changing Iowa and its Public Schools

Big Grove Township School #1

Iowa Democrats took a shellacking during the 2010 general election for U.S. Senate. We ran Des Moines attorney Roxanne Conlin against incumbent Chuck Grassley in a historic campaign. Grassley won 718,215 votes to Conlin’s 371,686.

In an email to supporters after the election, Conlin wrote, in part:

I don’t want you to be sad about the outcome of this election. There are other reasons to run besides winning. We talked issues that otherwise might not have gotten a hearing, we met lots of young women and girls who loved seeing an Iowa woman running for high office. And I hope that we motivated a lot of voters who would not have otherwise come out to the polls.

We stood strong for our principles. And we conducted our campaign with dignity.

[…]

As Ted Kennedy famously said, “the work continues, the cause endures, the hope still lives, and the dream will never die.”

Email from Roxanne Conlin dated Nov. 4, 2010.

I would rather Conlin had won that election.

The Iowa Republican legislature and governor seek to change how schools are funded. It is the latest in a long-term agenda to radically remake Iowa into something completely different from the one in which I grew up. Since Jan. 1, 2017, Republicans held a trifecta, controlling the governorship, and both chambers of the legislature. They are remaking everything about state government, and in turn, about Iowa. Schools are just one part of their agenda.

We consider Republican legislators to be stingy in their support of public schools, although they say each year they have been generous. The fact is the cost per pupil in public schools is rising much faster than what the legislature provided each year in funding. Here is a a chart of expenses from the legislature’s website. The funding shortfall seems obvious.

What exactly do Republicans think they are funding in public schools? A change in education that walks away from basic assumptions about the long-time role of public schools in society. Let’s go in the Wayback Machine to the 1950s thanks to Frances FitzGerald’s 1979 book America Revised:

There is a growing consensus that the schools should assume a primary responsibility for basic functions of education which were once almost entirely performed by family and church. These include moral and spiritual education, character education, education for home and family living, and other aspects of personal and social adjustment.

Unnamed Report by the National Council for the Social Studies quoted by Frances FitzGerald in America Revised.

Today’s Republicans reject what used to be a consensus about education. During the previous two legislative sessions a proposal to advance public funding of private schools was held at bay because it is widely unpopular.

Governor Kim Reynolds, during her swearing in speech on Friday, Jan. 13, addressed what she is doing and why she persists in providing public funds for private education.

“Trust in the Lord with all our heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make your paths straight.”  Psalm 32:8 

Having that perspective has given me freedom. A freedom to be bold and not beholden. 

Not beholden to others, to elections, or even to what’s popular. Instead, I have the freedom to do what I believe is right. Right for our state, right for our citizens, and, most of all, right for our children—regardless of the personal consequences to me.  

Press Release from the Iowa Governor’s office, Jan. 13, 2023.

The text of Senate Study Bill 1022, the Students First Act, was filed shortly after the legislature convened. While the governor’s proposal has not been popular, it may pass this session. The question and answer on last week’s Iowa Press explains.

Erin Murphy It’s bigger (comparing previous, similar legislation to SSB1022). Is it a slam dunk in your caucus? Is this bill your expectation that it will pass?

Pat Grassley And I think you touched on something that’s so important where the dynamic has fundamentally changed since last session. There’s been an election, and this issue has been out there. Candidates for the House all across the state were very successful and almost all of them at least campaigned on this part of their campaign strategy and their platform moving forward.

Iowa Press, Jan 13, 2023. Link

Regardless that the governor believes this path for public education is the right one, and Republicans campaigned on public funding for private education and won, the bill is flawed. It is also expensive, spending hundreds of millions of dollars in the first four years alone. I wrote in opposition to SSB1022, attempting to address the flaws in the bill as well as the need for legislators to work together on resolving the shortfall in Iowa public education funding:

I oppose SSB1022, The Students First Act, as written. I was educated first through twelfth grades in a private school without direct public funding. Our church paid the entire cost of physical plant and operating costs, including teachers. If the current Republican majority campaigned on change as outlined in SSB1022, and were elected because of it, some form of the legislation may pass despite protests. The bill’s language was filed just this week. I encourage Republicans to work with Democrats to make the final product much better than it is today. Consider and accept amendments now, and during debate. If Iowa will go down this path and give public funds to private schools, inclusion of the broadest possible input is needed. There is no hurry to get this done. Take your time. Do what’s right for Iowa. For me, that means rejecting the bill as written.

Public comments on SSB1022 in the Iowa Legislature. Link

We shall see what Republicans do during public dialogue on SSB1022. If it becomes law, Iowa will change in ways no one anticipated. The reasonable approach to elections exhibited by talented yet losing candidates like Roxanne Conlin will not be enough.

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