Gubernatorial candidates focusing on public schools is far from new.
But in the Iowa race for governor, both candidates have spent significant time on the campaign trail discussing their plans for the future of education in Iowa amid rising polarization on issues from vaccine and mask mandates to book bans and state funding.
While Gov. Kim Reynolds has not spent much time discussing her policy goals while campaigning for re-election, she has made education a top priority. In campaign speeches and ads, she highlights how her administration worked on reopening public schools which went to remote learning during the COVID-19 pandemic. Iowa schools went back to in-person learning earlier than many other states, when she signed an order in July 2020 requiring students to receive at least half of their schooling in classrooms. She signed legislation in 2021 requiring school districts to provide a full-time classroom option for parents who request it.
Parents having a larger say in their children’s schooling is a recurring theme in the governor’s campaign.
“We’re going to put parents back in charge of their children’s education,” Reynolds told supporters at a rally for US Rep. Ashley Hinson in August.
Calls for ‘parental control’ in schools
Reynolds said it is “common sense” for parents to make decisions on masking and vaccination in schools. That idea extends beyond COVID-19 policies: She has also called for parents to have a greater say in how schools approach transgenders students.
The discussions in Iowa arose after Linn-Mar Community School District adopted a policy whereby transgender students can adopt a “gender support plan,” the district can require employees and other students use the individual’s preferred name and pronouns, and facilities will match students’ gender identity at school.
The policy states that students can decide whether their parents or guardians participate in the school’s “gender support plan meeting.”
The governor has referenced these public school policies as another reason Iowans should support her voucher proposal. Reynolds said in May that families need more choices in education, and those choices should not be limited if the parents can’t afford to transfer theri children to a private school.
“I think that’s one of the reasons I think parents need an option,” Reynolds said. “If they feel that their child is not being educated in a safe environment, or they feel that their values aren’t being represented at school, or they feel that the school district is not focused on a quality education.”
During a recent fundraiser, Reynolds highlighted legislation she signed into law earlier this year which prohibits transgender girls and women from playing on women’s teams in most Iowa public schools and colleges.
“When we protected girls’ sports for girls, they called it discrimination,” she said. “The Iowa Democratic Party has lost sight of hard-working Iowans, and if elected, all of the things we’ve done over the last four years will go away.”
Michelle Veach, a Johnston parent, wore a shirt that stated “we do not co-parent with the government” to a Reynolds fundraiser earlier this month. She said one of the major reasons she supports the governor is because some of the material taught or available in public schools is inappropriate for children.
As a parent of children in Johnston public schools, Veach has spoken at multiple Johnston School Board meetings where she read excerpts of the books “The Hate U Give” and “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian,” books which are in the high school English class curriculum. Reynolds took their concerns seriously when she and other parents visited the Iowa State Capitol to discuss the books and other inappropriate content in schools, she said.
“She has listened to parents and worked with us whenever possible,” Veach said. “We want to be the authority with our kids education, our schools work for us. And we’ve lost that in our culture.”
Democrats call for more funding
Reynolds has highlighted issues like remote learning as a major problem in Iowa public schools. But her opponent, Democrat Deidre DeJear, says the problem is insufficient funding.
On the campaign trail, DeJear and other Iowa Democrats have repeatedly pledged to bring Iowa back to its position as a top state for education, an accolade that has slipped in recent years. In the most recent US News and World Report’s state education rankings, Iowa placed 18th.
“We know as Iowans that’s not where we belong and that’s not what our children deserve,” DeJear told a crowd this summer.
The decline, she said, is due to state government’s failure to match education funding increases with rising inflation. The state legislature approved a 2.5% increase to Iowa’s per-pupil education funding this year, which Democrats say meets neither the pace of inflation, or makes up for underfunding in previous years. She told the Des Moines Register she supports appropriating $300 million from Iowa’s budget surplus so that it can be used for education and compensate for the funding deficits.
Iowa’s public universities are also facing funding shortages. The Iowa Board of Regents raised the annual tuition at Iowa’s three public universities by more than $300 this year, as the state legislature only approved a $5.5 million increase in general aid while the schools requested $15 million after facing a $7 million cut in 2020. Student activists have said the tuition increases could prevent some Iowans from attending college.
The governor discussed college costs on the campaign trail as well, as she rallied against President Joe Biden’s student loan debt forgiveness program. Reynolds and Republican attorneys general in five other states filed a lawsuit in September challenging the Department of Education’s authority to forgive student loans.
Taking on the costs of higher education is a personal choice, Reynolds said, and the program would force taxpayers to take on that burden.
“By forcing them to pay for other people’s loans – regardless of income – President Biden’s mass debt cancellation punishes these Americans and belittles the path they chose,” Reynolds said in a statement about the lawsuit.