Two years ago, Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds proposed private school subsidies for kids in a small number of Iowa schools.
A year ago, the plan was expanded to 10,000 kids statewide.
Neither plan passed.
This year, fresh off an election win and with an expanded GOP majority, Reynolds saw an opening and, like a running back in football sprinting through the line, she proposed a vastly expanded plan to extend taxpayer-funded subsidies to anybody sending their kids to private schools around the state. Legislative Republicans went along with it, and now it’s law.
Nobody should miss the lesson here.
Like any politician, Kim Reynolds is an opportunist. When she sees an opening, she’ll exploit it.
This characteristic isn’t unique to Iowa’s governor. Politicians of every stripe know what they want, and while they may hide their intentions at first, if they see an opening, they will, without notice or regret, move swiftly. Especially when that opportunity carries political benefits.
We should keep this in mind when it comes to book bans.
Last week, Reynolds told a forum organized by the inaptly named group Moms for Liberty that she supports changing the ability of local school districts to deal with disputes over controversial books.
"Material that is removed by any Iowa school district would require consent in every district before being shared with children," the governor said, according to the Des Moines Register.
At first glance, this may seem like an intermediate step. She doesn’t specifically say that all districts would be required to ban a book if one does so. But don’t be fooled. That’s where this is headed.
In other words, if a school district in Ankeny or Orange City — or Iowa City — doesn’t like a book, school districts in Scott County would have to abide by their decision.
Think about that.
Last year, a local committee in Pleasant Valley voted against a parent’s attempt to take a book called “All Boys Aren’t Blue" off the shelves. However, a one-size-fits-all policy would take that choice out of the hands of local people and tie Quad-City schools to decisions made elsewhere, by other people.
If you doubt this is where we’re going, consider this comment at a meeting this week of the Republican-controlled House Government Oversight Committee, where a member of Moms for Liberty spoke about the process school districts have to go by when a book is challenged.
"The process is too subjective, too lengthy, and frankly, there are too many inappropriate books that need to be removed from our schools," said Pam Gronau, an Urbandale mother and legislation chair for the Polk County Moms for Liberty, according to the Register.
The newspaper said that “Democrats on the committee noted that the parents were able to successfully prevent their own children from accessing certain books they disagreed with, even if the books were not removed or limited to all students.”
If these parents want to keep their kids from reading certain books, that’s one thing. But the real goal here seems to be to keep your kids from reading them, too.
In other words, this is really about prioritizing the preferences of a select group of Iowa parents and allowing them to exercise their will across the state. And they have the governor in their corner.
Unfortunately, one of the problems here is how Reynolds has been cast as the protector of “parents’ rights.”
Innumerable news stories have said the governor ran in 2022 on a platform of “parent rights.”
She ran to prioritize the rights of the most politically active, conservative parents.
Throughout my career covering politics, I’ve heard politicians on both sides talk about how they’re doing “the will of the people.” But what they usually mean is they’re doing the will of the people who got them elected.
I doubt most parents in this state are all that interested in the culture wars that have made education the main battlefield. Most just want their kids to get a decent education. And they trust their kids’ classroom teacher and the school librarian to decide what material is age-appropriate more than they do politicians who too often are looking to score points.
However, the culture wars are what activate certain voters these days. And in this state, if you’re not invested in the fight, or are on the wrong side, your rights come second.
What’s also notable is this attitude also diminishes the rights of people who don’t even have kids in schools, including those who vote in local school board elections. They, too, have a stake in how schools are run.
So, how are their interests diminished?
Consider the results of the 2021 school district elections across the state.
In some parts of Iowa, like Ankeny, for example, more conservative people were elected to school board seats. But in Bettendorf, that wasn’t the case. In Pleasant Valley and Davenport, voters also chose a more moderate road.
If the governor chooses to yoke these districts to the most right-wing opinions around the state, that will have a radical impact not only on the rights of kids and their parents, but on the ability of Iowans to help determine the direction of their local school districts.
Republican lawmakers will tell you that because Reynolds won the 2022 gubernatorial election, they're going to back her. But, as Kathie Obradovich of the Iowa Capital Dispatch noted in a column this week, winning an election doesn’t give a politician free reign to do whatever they wish.
What’s more, Reynolds didn’t campaign on the kind of far-reaching private school funding bill she ended up introducing. She also didn’t campaign on tying the rights of local school districts to the views of the most reactionary activists from around the state.
But like any opportunist, if the opening is there, Reynolds and like-minded Republican lawmakers will rush right through it. Even if it means trampling the rights of Iowans who aren’t on their team – or who aren’t even interested in playing the game.
The Iowa House passed a K-12 spending bill on Tuesday, and Gov. Reynolds signed it into law. In an article posted Sunday, I incorrectly said that the legislation had already passed the House.
Along the Mississippi is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
Along the Mississippi is a proud member of the Iowa Writers Collaborative. Please check out the work of my colleagues and consider subscribing to their work.
Laura Belin, Iowa Politics with Laura Belin, Windsor Heights
Doug Burns: The Iowa Mercury, Carroll
Dave Busiek: Dave Busiek on Media, Des Moines
Art Cullen, Art Cullen’s Notebook, Storm Lake
Suzanna de Baca: Dispatches from the Heartland, Huxley
Debra Engle: A Whole New World, Madison County
Julie Gammack: Julie Gammack’s Iowa Potluck, Des Moines and Okoboji
Jody Gifford: Benign Inspiration, West Des Moines
Beth Hoffman: In the Dirt, Lovilla
Dana James: New Black Iowa, Des Moines
Fern Kupfer and Joe Geha: Fern and Joe, Ames
Robert Leonard: Deep Midwest: Politics and Culture, Bussey
Tar Macias, Hola Iowa, Iowa
Kurt Meyer, Showing Up
Pat Kinney, View from Cedar Valley, Waterloo
Kyle Munson: Kyle’s Main Street, Iowa
Jane Nguyen, The Asian Iowan, West Des Moines
John Naughton, My Life, in Color, Des Moines
Chuck Offenburger: Iowa Boy Chuck Offenburger, Jefferson and Des Moines
Barry Piatt: Behind the Curtain, Washington, D.C.
Macey Spensley: The Midwest Creative
Mary Swander: Mary Swander’s Buggy Land, Kalona
Mary Swander: Mary Swander’s Emerging Voices
Cheryl Tevis, Unfinished Business, Boone County
Ed Tibbetts: Along the Mississippi, Davenport
Teresa Zilk: Talking Good, Des Moines
Also, please check out our alliance partner, Iowa Capital Dispatch. It provides hard-hitting news along with selected commentary by members of the Iowa Writers Collaborative.
I serve on our local public library board and we had a request to ban “Gender Queer”. We went through the reconsideration process and then to the board as a whole and it was an unanimous vote to retain the book in our collection. I credit the unanimous support for the book because we all read the book. I am a retired librarian and the old me would have made sure to note to one and all that we don’t ban books around here. This time is different, I have been relatively quiet because for the first time in Iowa I feel estranged from my neighbors and wonder if everyone has lost their damn minds. I live in a very small town in a rural county in southeast Iowa.
As a parent of two teenagers, I would have no concerns about my children reading any of the books being challenged. I think it would give them insight into diverse experiences of their peers.
It is infuriating that a few parents who don't like frank writing about race, gender identity, or sexual orientation could restrict access from Iowa students statewide.