Iowans should vote in school board elections, but for the right reasons

It’s not the culture war that really matters

November 3, 2023 10:46 am

Voting booths at Friendship Baptist Church in Ames, Iowa. (Photo by Kate Kealey/Iowa Capital Dispatch)

Iowa Writers 'Collaborative. Linking Iowa readers and writers.Next week, Iowans will go to the polls to choose members of their local school boards.

In truth, hardly any Iowans will do this. And not just because they’ve already voted by absentee ballot.

If history holds, only a fraction of eligible voters will vote in the city and school elections.

In Scott County, less than 15% of registered voters cast ballots in 2019. Before the Legislature consolidated city and school elections to a single date, turnout in school board races was even worse.

In my 30-plus years of journalism in the Quad-Cities, I’ve read a lot of — and even written a few — opinion articles urging people to pay attention to these elections. Schools spend hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars here, and they are responsible for educating our kids.

Yet, the apathy continues.

This can be dangerous. With low turnout, a highly motivated few have an outsized influence.

In Iowa, Republicans in the state Legislature are trying to steer education in their direction through funding choices, laws seeking to curb kids’ access to a broad base of learning — and by promoting their like-minded allies to run in local school board races.

Some might see this as a corrective to the influence the teachers’ union has had on school board policy. But what I see in Iowa is that, too often, these candidates are focused on the wrong issues, the ones they see in the media and that are promoted by politicians.

What matters: Teacher recruitment, test scores, student achievement

I’d rather support school board candidates who are focused on the things that matter most.

For example:

Retaining and recruiting teachers is a challenge for schools across the country, including in Iowa. A recent survey said that 86% of public-school districts nationwide reported they’d struggled to hire teachers. In Iowa, some districts have offered bonuses to encourage educators not to retire, and in the Des Moines district, an official said earlier this year that it’s getting tougher to lure prospects here because of the state’s political climate.

We also need improve test scores, particularly since Covid; and we need to deal with the achievement gaps that are leaving too many kids behind.

A state board of education report to the Legislature this year on achievement gaps drew special attention to the average test scores of Black and White students and Hispanic and White students in English language arts. From grades 3 to 11, the gaps in those test scores have actually doubled throughout schooling.

It’s not just race, either. People with disabilities and kids from poor families also have been shown to be falling behind their peers.

Then, there is funding. Most tax dollars for school districts go to pay salaries. And, in Iowa, the state’s rank in terms of teacher salaries would barely earn a C grade — at best. The National Education Association’s 2023 review said Iowa’s average teacher salary ranks it 27th in the nation; its average beginning teacher salary ranks the state 36th.

One of the most important duties of a board member is to work to ensure our local schools are adequately funded. That means advocating for them with a state Legislature that has been taking steps to funnel more tax dollars toward private schools, leaving less money for public education, which is where the vast majority of Iowa kids go.

I’d much rather school board candidates focus on these kinds of challenges, rather than the culture wars.

Americans cite concerns about quality, not culture

I think that I’m in line with most Americans in this belief, too.

A nationwide Gallup poll this year said even those Americans who are dissatisfied with K-12 education are more likely to cite poor or outdated curriculum, the quality of education and a lack of teaching in basic subjects rather than the cultural issues.

Only 10% of those who said they aren’t happy with K-12 education in this country cited the belief that political agendas are being taught in schools as the reason. That was practically even with the 9% who are dissatisfied that students weren’t learning life skills and the 8% unhappy because of unequal access or lack of opportunity for low-income students.

Only 4% cited sex education/transgender/gender identity concerns.

In other words, what’s most shouted about in the media isn’t what’s most at issue in our schools.

Majority says schools align with family values

In Iowa most parents also aren’t worried about the things the Legislature and Gov. Kim Reynolds are focused on. A Des Moines Register poll published this year said 72% of respondents with kids in public schools said their schools align with their family’s values. But that’s not what you hear from the governor. She caters to the minority who aren’t happy.

There are a lot of issues for people to consider when choosing who to support in a school board election. A recent essay in the Register cited some of the considerations that I mentioned, but also added some others. Those include choosing board members who understand the importance of data and of professional development, who work to understand the complexity of school finance and who are willing to deal with the changing demographics of Iowa schools. Twenty years ago, 12% of kids were students of color; now, it’s 27%, according to the state.

This doesn’t even count other issues districts face. Here in the Quad-Cities, Davenport faces a shrinking enrollment base, and absenteeism is a challenge. The Pleasant Valley district faces a growing student population. All districts tend to have facility issues.

Overall, Iowa’s education system faces big challenges, and local school boards are an important part of finding solutions. More of us should take part in choosing who our representatives on these boards will be. And when we make those choices, we should focus on what matters the most — not just what the politicians and their allies are shouting about.

This column was originally published by Ed Tibbetts’ Along the Mississippi newsletter on Substack. It is republished here through the Iowa Writers’ Collaborative.

Editor’s note: Please consider subscribing to the collaborative and the authors’ blogs to support their work.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Ed Tibbetts
Ed Tibbetts

Ed Tibbetts, of Davenport, has covered politics, government and trends for more than three decades in the Quad-Cities. A former reporter and editorial page editor for the Quad-City Times, he now is a freelance journalist who publishes the Along the Mississippi newsletter on Substack. He is a member of the Iowa Writers’ Collaborative.