Dengler Domain: Upcoming

This upcoming Iowa state legislative session will be one of the most consequential ones in years. This may be hyperbole, but the potential impact this session could have on public education in Iowa indicates otherwise. Iowa has long been the face of public education. For Pete’s sake, our state quarter has a one room schoolhouse on it, and – like our corn, soybeans, and pigs – we exported the Iowa Test of Basic Skills now known as the Iowa Assessments.

While Iowa’s test scores have fallen from previous highs and funding has not kept up with the rate of inflation, public schools have long been supported by both parties. Since the Republicans have been in control of the statehouse and governor’s office, however, support for public schools has started to wane. In addition to dwindling support, Governor Kim Reynolds has made school choice a defining part of her agenda. Due to her political calculations, she was able to oust fellow Republicans in the state legislature who did not support this school choice agenda. These Republicans feared what could happen to rural public schools if the school choice plan went through, but Governor Reynolds rid them of her party. She also helped Republicans secure more seats in the House and the Senate in this past election. Maybe I am in the minority, but I worry for our public schools.

As a product of public schools, from childhood through college graduation, the benefits I’ve reaped from attending public schools have been vast. Learning from a variety of perspectives and interacting with a diversity of thoughts and viewpoints has allowed me to challenge my worldview and better make sense of this crazy world. Even if I wanted to attend a private school, it would have been hard for my family to make it work due to the distance to the closest school. It made sense to attend North Tama.

The crux of the issue is using public tax dollars to pay for private education. According to the Iowa Capital Dispatch, $55 million in state tax money would be diverted from public K-12 schools and would be channeled into private schools under the school choice plan debated this past legislative session. This can further line the pockets of private schools which also would not get the scrutiny of how they spend these public tax dollars like public schools. None of it makes sense for rural Iowa. What I am describing is a simplistic version, but public dollars should not go to private purposes. There are examples of this happening in society like the NRCS helping farmers pay for conservation programs, but this is for public benefit like protecting water quality and soil erosion.

What public purpose does paying for a private education bring Iowans? How about instead of being wasteful, we keep the money in public schools and make the money more efficient in these schools rather than giving a private school a subsidy with no oversight. For rural residents, public schools need to be supported. In bustling metropolises like Des Moines and Cedar Rapids, private schools are just as far away as the public schools. Potentially, Kim Reynolds’ school choice agenda helps those living in the big city rather than those living in rural Iowa. While she performed well throughout the state in November, this is a potential slap in the face to those rural residents who delivered her an overwhelming win in November while also relying on public schools.

There has been talk of setting aside money for rural public schools in this potential change, but at the end of the day, public money is being used for private purposes. An argument has been made this plan will not affect how public schools are funded, but if someone can explain how they can be mutually exclusive, I am all ears. In fact, I would love to hear any argument on how this helps rural Iowa and public schools. Rural public schools drive the economy and culture of the small town, and anything which is a potential threat like these school vouchers to closing these schools needs to have the most scrutiny applied to it.

One argument for providing these vouchers is it will make public schools be more competitive, but private schools are not going away with or without the vouchers. The competition already exists, and students on free and reduced lunches have grown throughout much of the state over the past 20 years. Not all these families will have the option to take advantage of the vouchers, and if these vouchers are taking away money from the rural public schools, these families have less of a chance to help their children be successful in the world.

Despite the intention, the school choice agenda is not the best option for Iowa. While this agenda will more than likely pass, I hope I am wrong. At the end of the day, it does not matter where a child is getting their education if they get a good one. For the legislators deciding on this system, make sure those still attending public schools get an education as good as if not better than the public ones. When public schools succeed, Iowans succeed.

Sean Dengler is a writer, comedian, farmer, and host of the Pandaring Talk podcast who grew up on a farm between Traer and Dysart. You can reach him at sean.h.dengler@gmail.com.