Education

New Legislation Places Students First in Iowa

The COVID-19 pandemic brought education policy to the forefront of this year’s legislative session as parents struggled with educating their children while trying to prevent the “COVID” academic slide from occurring. Early in the legislative session, Governor Reynolds called for schools to be 100 percent open and argued that parents need more choice.

In responding to the Governor’s call, the legislature passed a law that stated all Iowa students, starting in February 2021, would have the opportunity to attend school 100 percent in person.

Regarding parental choice, Governor Reynolds, in her Condition of the State Address, proposed the Students First Act.  This bold comprehensive education reform plan placed Iowa students first by removing barriers to educational opportunity. The goal was to ensure that socioeconomic status and zip codes did not limit the ability of parents to provide the best education for their children. The centerpiece of the Students First Act was a “Student First Scholarship” program, which was an Education Savings Account (ESA) for “students who are trapped in a failing school.”

“School choice shouldn’t be limited to those who have the financial means or are lucky to live in a district that’s confident enough to allow open enrollment. So, let us make choice an option for everyone,” stated Governor Reynolds. Often school choice is viewed as a student switching from a public to a private or homeschool alternative. Open enrollment serves as a vital element of parental choice in education.

As this year’s legislative session wound to a close, thanks to the tireless efforts of Governor Kim Reynolds and the Republican-led legislature, they passed several essential measures that not only expand school choice in Iowa but also place the interests of students first. Some of the key measures include:

    • Expanding charter schools
    • Expanding open enrollment, including the elimination of voluntary diversity plans.
      (VDPs took away open enrollment freedoms from parents.)
    • Increasing the Tuition and Textbook tax credit (25 percent of the first $2,000 spent)
    • Increasing the School Tuition Organization tax credit to $20 million and the percentage credit for donors to 75 percent

 

All of these are significant in empowering parents and their children by reducing barriers to educational opportunity. As an example, eliminating the voluntary diversity plans for the five school districts (Davenport, Des Moines, Postville, Waterloo, and West Liberty) means that over 58,000 students, based on 2019 enrollment, will now have less restrictions to open enroll into a better school. This opens doors of opportunity for thousands of families in Iowa.

In addition to school choice, the legislature addressed the controversy surrounding radical curriculums, such as the use of critical race theory in classrooms. A measure was passed that prohibits schools from using curriculum that teaches critical race theory or the idea that America is inherently racist. Iowans are growing more concerned about some of the radical and ideological ideas being brought into classrooms.

The legislature also passed a law that protects students’ constitutional right to free speech. Schools will also be required to display the United States flag and the Pledge of Allegiance must be recited, but this is not a mandate for students to follow.  Lastly, in the final hours of session, public school mask mandates were lifted.

From a fiscal standpoint, the legislature approved a 2.4 percent increase in public education spending. Education spending is the leading driver of the budget and the legislature approved over $3.4 billion in funding.

Governor Reynolds and the Republican-led legislature deserve credit for advancing policies that place parents and students first and protects them from the harmful impact of radical curriculums plaguing classrooms across the nation. However, the work of advancing school choice is far from over.

One disappointment of this legislative session was the failure to pass an ESA measure, which would have allowed funding to follow the student rather than a specific school. Policymakers still need to make sure that all students across Iowa, regardless of location or socioeconomic status, can attend the school that best provides for their educational needs. An ESA program would help remove barriers to education and help parents afford the best opportunity for their children.

Both parents and policymakers must remain vigilant and continue to monitor what is being taught in classrooms. We must emphasize that the best way to combat indoctrination in schools is to offer parents both more choice and transparency in curriculum. Only through competition and better choices will they ever have an incentive to become focused on putting kids first.