In what’s been described as a “disastrous week in education” by public school advocates, the Iowa Senate last Thursday pushed forward a sweeping school privatization bill, followed by Gov. Kim Reynolds signing on Friday a requirement that schools now offer a 100% in-person learning option.
Now Democrats question the timing of what they call an “assault on public schools,” when pressing concerns of COVID-19 mitigation, vaccine rollouts and the need for economic relief are impacting the state.
“The normal family right now has so many different factors that they are trying to navigate and so many external stressors that aren’t normal,” said Sioux City Rep. Chris Hall during a zoom panel hosted by Iowa Educators for a Safe Return to School on Monday evening.
“[The Iowa GOP is saying] here’s our opportunity, while everyone is really going about their lives and these major distractions, here’s our time to slip one past the goalie. Because it’s a long-term goal of groups like ALEC and the Koch Brothers who have fingerprints on this type of bill. It’s a long-term goal to privatize and make for-profit as many tax dollars as possible.”
The fast-tracked school choice bill that won Senate approval on Thursday includes a state-funded school voucher program that would allow qualifying students to receive scholarships to attend private school, makes open enrollment available in all districts and removes voluntary diversity plans for large school districts.
“Here you got a fast track bill through the Senate, and a couple others out there, and we’re not even discussing what we ought to be. That’s pretty significant from a school board standpoint when you’re trying to set your budgets. Like why are you fooling around with this right now instead of dealing with what you’re supposed to be dealing with?” said Sioux City Rep. Steve Hansen on the panel.
The Republican-led House on Tuesday passed the voluntary diversity plan provision as a standalone bill—now Iowa’s five school districts with diversity plans cannot reject open enrollment requests from students trying to attend another public school.
Rep. Cindy Winckler of Davenport, who represents one of the school districts with a diversity plan, said on the House floor that she’s been told by school officials that open enrollment out of the district has “slanted” toward upper-income families.
“By eliminating the diversity plan, we eliminate options and opportunities our students have,” Winckler said.
However, the passage of the provision independent of Reynolds’ overarching school choice bill is promising for Democrats, Hall said–the disassembled bill makes for more debate on the individual topics. Vouchers and open enrollment haven’t yet been debated in the House.
“The fact that they’re getting filed as individual bills is a good sign … we just need to keep pressure applied more than anything to avoid having these bills come up and move further down the line,” he said. “A lot of teachers, parents, people out there who have been writing emails and phone calls to their legislators, if we can really put the brakes on it and hopefully slow some of these proposals down,”
Hansen said that he’s been hearing a lot from constituents all across the state—not just from public school advocates—against school vouchers.
“I do know that my email communications, my texts are probably running about 15-18 to one against vouchers, and they’re coming from all over the state,” he said.
Dubuque school board member Anderson Sainci said that the GOP-led attack on public education also includes the bill that requires all schools to have in-person learning options five days a week–Iowa’s first signed bill of the 2021 Legislative session.
“We’re also in a global pandemic right now, and we’re forcing students and teachers to come back full time, so it’s really putting a lot of pressure on districts right now to figure out how do we bring kids and our teachers back safely. I think our priorities are wrong right now,” he said.
Sioux City Sen. Jackie Smith said that the Legislature’s priorities during the pandemic should be focused on safe working environments and schools, PPE distribution and vaccinations.
“There are things that we can be talking about that unify us right now,” she said. “Unfortunately, every issue that we’ve dealt with has been an extreme, really radical agenda. It started with loosening gun restrictions, loosening restrictions on businesses, we’re dealing with anti-abortion bills, we’re dealing with privatizing schools instead of the things that make a difference every day in rebuilding our communities.”
by Isabella Murray
Iowa Starting Line is an independently owned progressive news outlet devoted to providing unique, insightful coverage on Iowa news and politics. We need reader support to continue operating — please donate here. Follow us on Twitter and Facebook for more coverage.