Reynolds: All Iowa students deserve the option of 100% classroom instruction

Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds delivers the Condition of the State address in the House Chambers at the Iowa Capitol Building on Tuesday, Jan. 12, 2021. (Pool photo by Bryon Houlgrave/Des Moines Register)

Gov. Kim Reynolds delivered her Condition of the State address Tuesday and in reference to the deadly pandemic that has so far killed 4,222 Iowans, she called for immediate legislation that will allow all Iowa children to return to classrooms “all day, Monday through Friday.”

Reynolds said she supports parents having options, adding that one parent she spoke to questioned why “some parents get the option to go 100% online” while others don’t get “the option to be 100% in the classroom” during the school year.

“I agree,” Reynolds said. “So tonight I am asking the Legislature to immediately send a bill to my desk that gives parents the choice to send their child back to school full time. We can’t wait any longer. Our kids can’t wait any longer.”

Reynolds said most Iowa school districts had “found a way” to safely reopen and offer students full-time instruction.

The governor’s call for a return to classroom instruction drew sustained applause from lawmakers, though most Democrats were watching the speech remotely due to Republican leaders’ decision to refrain from imposing a face-mask requirement inside the Capitol.

The coronavirus pandemic is currently spreading in Iowa at a rate of roughly 1,631 cases per day, an increase of 44% from two weeks ago.

Reynolds’ initial data-driven approach to the virus, which involved “dialing up” mitigation measures as infections increased, was abandoned last summer. In June, Reynolds declared that Iowa was “in recovery” from the COVID-19 pandemic and the state was again “open for business.” In November, with the rate of infection rapidly accelerating, she said the state’s increased knowledge of the virus and its behavior allowed for the loosening of mitigation measures.

The governor said Tuesday that Iowa’s unemployment rate is now one of the lowest in the nation and that business productivity in Iowa outpacing other states.

Speaking just six days after pro-Trump rioters at the U.S. Capitol left five people dead, Reynolds proposed legislation that would specifically target individuals engage in such conduct, saying “if you riot or attack our men and women in uniform, you will be punished.” She said the legislation should also ban racial profiling by Iowa police.

Reynolds notes 2020’s challenges

In her speech, Reynolds noted that the past year has been particularly difficult for many Iowans.

“In 10 months, Iowans went through a pandemic, civil unrest, a significant drought, and a derecho,” she said. “A word I think we use a lot to describe Iowa and Iowans is resilient. It is true of our people, our communities, our state budget, and our economy.”

Reynolds also called for the creation of education savings accounts that would enable students to move to other schools if the ones they’re attending are failing.

Declaring that she’s “done taking small steps and hoping for big change,” Reynolds outlined several proposed new initiatives, including expanded access to broadband service.

Noting that Iowa has the second-lowest broadband speeds in the country, Reynolds proposed the state spend $450 million over three years expanding high-speed internet service throughout the state.

Reynolds also proposed some modest changes to the state’s troubled mental health system, asking for an additional $15 million in funding for the current year and another $15 million next year. Federal pandemic aid will also be directed to the mental health system.

She said she also intends to ask legislators for $25 million to provide child care development block grants aimed at encouraging the development of more child care centers in Iowa.

Democrats criticize tax cut, education plans

After the speech, Democratic leaders were sharply critical of Reynolds’ plan to offer classroom instruction for all who want it.

Assistant House Minority Leader Jennifer Konfrst, D-Windsor Heights, said her party hears heartbreaking stories like the ones the governor recounted Tuesday of families desperate to get children back in school. “And I would like to know,” she added, “what the stories would be like if students were forced to go in person 100% of the time without community public health standards being followed, where teachers are coming in and out of the classroom because they’re getting sick or dying.”

Iowa State Education Association President Mike Beranek said Reynolds was focusing “on trying to return our state to a normal that is not yet possible” due to the pandemic.

“Asking the Legislature to adopt a 100% in-person learning as an additional choice despite community spread will only further exacerbate an already untenable situation,” he said. “This is not giving parents more choice; this is giving schools less ability to protect and promote the great learning they must provide … Educators want to get back to normal. We all want to get back to full in-person instruction, but not at the expense of lives lost and health jeopardized.”

In her speech, Reynolds said “we aren’t looking at tough budget cuts and we’re certainly not looking at raising taxes. If anything, we need to continue the conversation about cutting taxes, and we can start by getting rid of the unnecessary triggers that were put in place in 2018. Let’s make Iowa more competitive and guarantee our taxpayers that they can keep more of their hard-earned money.”

Senate Minority Leader Zach Wahls, D-Coralville, said the governor’s top proposal on the economy amounts to “another tax cut for the rich and wealthy. We need help for front-line health care workers and other essential workers, not another giveaway to the rich and powerful.”

House Minority Leader Todd Prichard, D-Charles City, said his rural community needs broadband assistance and the governor’s proposal is “definitely a strong commitment.” But he questioned the state’s ability to pay for such a program “when we’re talking about these massive tax cuts.”

House Speaker Pat Grassley, R-New Hartford, said House Republicans have an interest in improving child care and broadband services and cutting taxes but will need to review the governor’s proposed budget. “The governor laid out a lot of aggressive, forward-thinking proposals,” made possible by the state’s budgetary practices in previous years, Grassley said. Regarding broadband, he added, “The governor made a big splash tonight with the program she laid out.”