Mike Asks: What's the Matter With Iowa?
The Iowa legislature must have set its clocks back to 1991, because their "new" ideas like "School Choice" would fit in better alongside Desert Storm Victory Day Parades or Y2K Preparation. Concepts like giving public money to private schools and establishing charter schools that don't answer to the communities they serve are so old (how old are they?!), we have decades worth of data to show that they don't actually improve outcomes for students and don't improve a state's overall school system.
What's worse, the Iowa legislature seems to miss the point that it hasn't been the schools stifling creativity and innovation in schools, but the legislature.
There are already charter schools in Iowa. They are, currently, approved by local school boards and answer to local school boards. The ones that exist seem to be doing a good job.
There is also plenty of non-charter innovation in Iowa schooling. Des Moines Public Schools is the system my kids are in, and also one I (partially) attended growing up. DMPS has Central Campus and Central Academy for junior high and high school; it has alternative-learning style schools spread around the city like the Walnut Street School or Cowles Montessori. There are IB programs, arts programs, and more.
The head of West Central Charter told the state that their school was able to expand college credit courses for their students to take while in high school. Which is great! That rural district found that a charter school was the best way to achieve that goal.
DMPS has been doing that for (at least) 25 years. DMPS students can take college level courses in a variety of fields, from humanities to nursing. I did that back in 1998.
So why hasn't DMPS done more in recent years to build on this innovation?
It's not for lack of trying on the school's part.
When DMPS looked to expand alternative learning options a few years ago, by putting a Montessori-style school on the underserved northeast side of the city, it was state budget cuts that forced that idea to the sidelines.
Since then, the northeast side of Des Moines has remained underserved, and class sizes will continue to grow.
But the state's bizarre budgetary requirements don't just affect DMPS, they touch everyone.
Back in 2016, more school budget cuts required Waukee (one of the fastest growing and wealthiest districts in the state) to lay off teachers while at the same time building new, state-of-the-art buildings. The superintendent of Waukee pointed out that, because of state budget rules, there is money for facilities that can only be used for facilities, but not teachers.
And that says nothing of the funding-per-pupil rules that disadvantage more urban districts. This inequity came to a head when the Superintendent of Davenport's school system "broke the law" by funding his students to the same level-per-student as a neighboring, wealthier district. That's right, to fund students equitably in Iowa is against the law.
If the state of Iowa is looking to improve schools and educational outcomes, there are ways to do that without spending a single penny more in taxes! Small-government-types should be doing cartwheels: we can simplify schools budgets, simplify state budgets, reduce state government by putting more control in local hands, and all without spending money?!
That's right! More money for schools would be great, but we could at least start by achieving equity within the system to improve outcomes -- restructure our school funding rules and restructure our property-tax-funding rules.
But we won't.
The legislature isn't really looking to innovate. They aren't looking to improve outcomes. They aren't even looking to simplify bureaucracy or expand "local control."
Iowa has charter schools. The legislature, though, wants to change to the charter school rules to remove oversight from local school boards, putting it in the hands of the state.
So, Pat Grassley, who can figure out how to enforce what pants people wear in the capitol but not what face covering they wear, would be in charge of your community's charter school. Looks like there may be some confusion of the uniform policy on day one!
This lack of local oversight is what, historically, has led to some of the worst charter school outcomes in states like Michigan.
The saddest part of all this: Iowa isn't even a pioneer in mismanagement! We're not leaders in bad policy, we're followers in bad policy. And just as we're getting the dumpster fire warmed up, other states are putting it out. Almost everything Iowa is proposing Kansas has done before. Iowa education advocates can save themselves some time by taking Kansas' 2014 education report and re-printing it for Iowa in a few years:
Kansas' education cuts got so bad, that the State Supreme Court had to step in and point out that there is a Constitutional obligation to fund schools. After that wake-up call, Kansas started raising revenue again, and found bipartisan support for hundreds of millions of dollars in new school funding over the course of several years.
So, I guess it's nice to see some bi-partisan support for school funding in Kansas. But by then, many teachers had left for neighboring states, many schools had cut programs, and the road back is going to be a long one.
Still, when Kansas started its "cut to succeed" plan that cut school funding, cut income taxes, cut property taxes, it was early enough to be considered "cutting edge" (zing).
Iowa, for some reason, is taking up the mantle of Failed-Policy-Dumping-Ground. We're taking bad ideas long after they've failed, and trying them out on ourselves.
It's sad and embarrassing all wrapped into one deep-fried-disaster.
The only thing left to ask is: what's the matter with Iowa?