“I truly believe that school choice will make the most consequential change for our education system in decades,” Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds says.
In January, Reynolds, a Republican, signed the Students First Act into law, creating education savings accounts for K-12 students in the state. By June, some 29,025 students had applied for the program.
Not only that, she signed into law a parental rights bill that prohibits instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity in K-6 public schools and prohibits school libraries from having sexually explicit materials on bookshelves.
“For making these groundbreaking reforms, the Hawkeye State won The Heritage Foundation’s 2023 Education Freedom Award,” wrote Heritage Foundation President Kevin Robert and Lindsey Burke, director of Heritage’s Center for Education Policy, in a column for The Washington Examiner. “Due to the new laws pertaining to transparency, teacher freedom, and school choice, Iowa jumped an impressive 13 spots on Heritage’s Education Freedom Report Card relative to the state’s 2022 standing—the largest improvement of any state in the country.”
Reynolds spoke at the Heritage Report Card Honors Event and explained how her state rose so quickly in the rankings.
“I’m extremely proud of the work that we’ve done in recent years to ensure that every student in our state has an equal opportunity to succeed in school and life,” she said.
Reynolds explained that the success of education reform in the state was the product of many different groups, including conservative legislators and school choice advocates, particularly parents.
“Because of that collective effort, nearly 19,000 students in Iowa were approved this fall,” she said.
Reynolds noted that when she was raising her own children, she wasn’t worried that what they would be taught in school would run counter to her beliefs. If there were concerns, she said, the schools were responsive in addressing the problem.
“It’s truly concerning to see how far we’ve drifted off course in just the last few years,” the Iowa governor said.
She explained that children across the country have been dealing with massive learning deficiencies due to widespread COVID-19 lockdowns in other states. During this time of mass online learning, Reynolds said, many parents learned that what was happening in classrooms was actually counterproductive.
“The reality is that COVID simply pulled back the curtain on issues that had fueled, I think, behind the scenes for years by some of the teachers unions, by higher education, and progressive activists,” she said.
The American public school system failed children when it should have provided the “stability and calm during the storm” in a time of crisis, Reynolds said, and that led to swift changes.
She provided an overview of the significant changes made in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis. After an initial school choice bill failed, Reynolds said, she and the state legislature continued to push hard for transformational change:
We successfully enacted a lot of other things, like laws to expand open enrollment, laws to remove restrictions on voluntary transfers from high-poverty school districts—really, to encourage charter school startups, so we started to move in that direction.
We expanded the tax credit benefits to up to 75% of every dollar that was donated to the school tuition organizations to help more families afford private tuition, to make that choice of where they wanted to send their child. We [also] banned critical race theory.
With those changes, Reynolds said, Iowa’s “education crusade for freedom was under way.”
Iowa jumped up from No. 22 on the 2022 Heritage Education Report Card to No. 9. Reynolds said she’s happy with the improvement, but wants to keep improving the state’s school system so it can catch up to that of Florida, which was ranked No. 1.
“We have [Florida] in our sights. You know, we’ve gained 13 spots. We’re going to be in the top five, if not higher next year, right? No. 1, we’re coming after you,” she said.
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