(Source: Iowa Department of Education)

A high-profile school voucher bill that would have siphoned millions of public dollars into private schools failed this week in Iowa. Pressure against the bill from rural parts of the state, where voters helped to elect the pro-voucher governor and a large Republican majority in the state Legislature, was the key to defeating the proposal. 

The bill, championed by Governor Kim Reynolds (R-Clarke County), would have transferred $55 million from the state budget into 10,000 private school scholarships. The voucher plan passed the state Senate earlier in the legislative session, but opposition from House Republican lawmakers concerned about the impact on rural schools defeated the bill, according to the Des Moines Register.

Vast areas of rural Iowa are without any private schools that could have used the scholarships, leading to fears rural districts would lose students and the public funding that comes along with them. 

Reynolds and her allies were defeated for the second year in a row in what they call a “school choice” plan, even though they added a provision in this year’s version of the bill to set aside 30% of the funding specifically for rural schools that might lose students.

“I wasn’t expecting the good news that the House was rejecting the bill” said Randy Richardson, a former rural school teacher from Southwest Iowa and public school advocate with Iowans for Public Education. “That 30% rural funding [change in this year’s version of the bill] was supposed to be the carrot. But rural Iowa didn’t buy that. They didn’t take Governor Reynolds’s bait.” 

Richardson said it was obvious that urban public schools near private schools were going to oppose the privatization plan. “But even in the areas of the state where Reynolds and the Republican have their largest margin of voters, small rural schools rose up to defeat the bill in the House,” Richardson said.

Other opponents to the voucher bill pointed out that public schools are a major part of the rural Iowa economy.

“The public schools are the biggest employer in our part of the state,” said Brenda Brink, a member of Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement, a grassroots statewide group that opposes the voucher bill for its effect on rural Iowa’s schools and economy. “People in my family work in public education. Everybody knows somebody who works in public education. So it doesn’t surprise me that rural people are saying no to Reynolds’s anti-school agenda.”

Brink said that in her lifetime she’s seen rural Iowa lose a lot of schools already, first to consolidation and then as people left due to lack of jobs and the rise of industrial agriculture. “To me, there’s a whole rhyme or reason to this. It’s about further de-population of rural areas,” Brink said.

“Who are the governors’ major supporters? It’s Smithfield. It’s Iowa Select,” she said, referring to two of the largest meatpacking corporations and industrial livestock producers in the state. “Nobody wants to live next to Big Ag, especially if there aren’t decent public schools left for the kids to attend. Why would anyone stick around?”

The school voucher bill’s future will also be a subject in the midterm elections in Iowa this November, where the governor is also up for re-election.

“I’ve never seen an Iowa politician running directly against public schools like this,” said Austin Frerick, who is running for a state Senate seat in Eastern Iowa. “Schools are one of those things that us Iowans are supposed to be proud of, a foundation of our state’s democracy, our economy, what makes us what we are.”

Frerick is putting public schools at the center of his campaign, pointing to the Iowa-version of the state quarter issued by the U.S. mint, that reads: “Foundation in Education.”

“I’ve had rural school administrators say to me that if this bill passes and I lose six kids I have to fire a teacher,” Frerick said. “The rural schools are already hanging on by a thread. There’s an active teacher workforce crisis, rising costs for operations. I find it embarrassing, frankly, that we’re using Iowa’s children and teachers as punching bags in this political environment.”

Iowa, like other states, has seen contentious debates in public schools during the last two years about Covid-19 policies and mask mandates, as well as rumors and conspiracy theories about “critical race theory” and issues of sexual or gender identity. But through it all, there remains strong support for local public schools and local educators.

“People like ‘their school,’ and I mean the actual local school that their children attend, the local school whose sports teams they follow, where they might have graduated from,” said Richardson, pointing to polling and research done twice in the last decade by his organization. “A large majority of Iowans are generally very happy with their local school. That might not extend to some other school in another part of the state, but public schools on the local level still have very strong support.”

Recent national polling on public schools shows a similar trend. A recent Pew Research poll on education shows the despite recent declines in public school principal confidence, a clear majority still has confidence in their local school administration, even among Republicans and Republican-leaning Independent voters.

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