Gov. Kim Reynolds’s insistence on providing vouchers to families with children in private schools is causing a rift with rural Republican legislators who are hearing from local public school administrators and school board members. Rep. Dennis Bush, R-Cleghorn, whose district encompasses Alta and Aurelia, at a recent forum in Cherokee County declared that he is the only candidate in a three-way GOP primary who will stand up for public education.
Rep. Megan Jones of Sioux Rapids, our next state representative, also is among about 20 GOP House members who oppose the $25 million voucher plan because it drains funds from public schools. The legislature allowed 2.5% growth in state aid to K-12 schools for next year, while they are settling contracts with teachers allowing 4% pay raises. Inflation is running at 8%. Schools have to heat those gyms and fuel those buses.
Public schools’ increases in state aid have not kept pace with inflation for several years.
No Republicans are complaining about tax cuts. Bush and Jones argue that rural schools, already facing enrollment and staffing challenges, at least should be kept whole. They are losing ground.
The voucher plan is holding up the close of the legislative session. It could become a weapon for Democrats in swing districts. Voters are uncomfortable with the radical talk of banning books and criminalizing teachers. Parents want their children to learn chemistry, math and biology, and it’s not easy finding teachers at Marcus-Meriden-Cleghorn. The voucher plan fuels voter anxiety over education when funds are made slim.
We believe in school vouchers, having benefitted personally from the Iowa Tuition Grant when sending students to Clarke, Wartburg and Drake — all hugely important cultural institutions in Iowa, along with Buena Vista University. They deserve public support as the great majority of private college graduates stay in Iowa — the impact of Beavers building Storm Lake is incalculable. The state universities always have hated it, and they have managed to keep the tuition grant program under-funded (as state universities are).
Likewise, St. Mary’s School is an important institution in Storm Lake. We wish we could have had vouchers when our children attended. But we made a choice for Catholic education fully accredited by the state. That decision had absolutely nothing to do with vouchers or tax credits and everything to do with Sister Donna. St. Mary’s shares music, athletics and academics with the public-school system, Iowa Central Community College and Buena Vista. It’s a wonderful set-up. The state provides tax incentives to parochial school families already, a form of voucher. All those things are okay with us.
Vouchers are not proving politically popular with the governor’s base. The proposal is ill-timed amid tax cuts and anemic public-school funding. It makes Republican leadership look weak when it cannot wrap up a legislative session ahead of mid-term elections on time over an issue that is not universally popular. They should give Democrats no openings, but the hubris of power has leadership listening to 2% of the electorate.