Your Mileage May Vary

I listen to The Fifth Column now and again, because they're an enjoyable trio to listen to and they've got enough off-beat takes on the news that I think it's a valuable perspective to ingest now and again, but I was finishing up a recent episode where they ended up talking about school choice and I found myself really struggling to agree with them. One of them brought up the point that school choice is incredibly popular amongst minority communities (and used the example of a nurse they met who had moved from New York City to Texas- not only for a good job but for better schools-- they felt they shouldn't have to do that and that better schools should just be available.) The other was repeating the tired old saw of 'funding students, not systems' and how due to the current lack of trust everyone has in the basic institutions of society, school choice could be our way out of the current flaming septic tank of culture war issues that are consuming education at the moment.

And I found myself struggling with that, because, given what's happened in Iowa, I'm not sure that's true. It's being treated as a 'one size fits all' model that might work well in some states, but I remain not at all convinced that it's going to work in Iowa. And that brought me back to a commandment I have to remind myself of from time to time:

Your mileage may vary.

My personal 'mileage' as it were, has been fortunate to grow up in a town with good schools. My experience as a student and as a parent with kids in public schools has been wonderful so far. We've got a great school, and great support staff for our kiddos- all of whom have some combination of IEP/504 plan and they're awesome. Can't say enough good things about them.

But, I have to acknowledge, I live in a fishbowl. It is difficult to get an accurate read on the mood of the rest of the state when sitting in the deep blue People's Republic of Johnson County. It's difficult to understand where the rest of the state is coming from and very easy to dismiss it all as hysterical right-wing panic. The problem I'm running into is that Twitter is not an accurate barometer of the mood of the state either and hysteria breeds hysteria. 

So, let's step back for a second.

What if I lived somewhere else and my public schools were just okay? What if the private schools had really good academics, and sports and were more in line with my values and the kind of education I wanted for my kids? If I had the means to send them to private or charter schools, obviously I would, but let's say I don't. Shouldn't I be able to access all educational options available for my kid?

When you put it like that, it's hard for me as a parent to disagree with it. 

However, that's not what they've done in Iowa. I could (and probably will) write a whole post about the arrogance of power that comes with one-party rule, but the frustrating thing is that had they done this differently, it might have genuinely benefited students. I don't know if I would have taken a renewed mandate from the voters in a midterm election year that (typically, in Iowa's case, though somewhat atypically nationally) ran heavily in the GOPs favor as a blank check to do whatever they liked, but that's apparently the takeaway they got. 

Politically, it's (evil) genius. It establishes a constituency in the suburbs of Des Moines and other population centers that are going to be more likely to stick with the party that gave them a significant chunk of free money than not. This puts Iowa Democrats in a huge bind. Unless the ground shifts in a major way and they totally flip the trifecta in 2024 (not impossible, but seems unlikely right now), then they can, at best, hope to break the trifecta somewhere along the line. Which will leave them with either the Governorship versus at least one Republican Chamber in the Legislature or one or both chambers in the Legislature up against Kimmie.

The travails of the Iowa Democratic Party aside, it is a problem they're going to have to consider. The notion of school choice is popular enough with voters that I don't think they can run on a full repeal. Obviously, if they flip the entire table and get a trifecta of their own, all bets are off, but, if they don't, then what? 

First, I would say messaging matters. GOP rhetoric on all of these issues has been awfully vague. Wild accusations are the order of the day and few, if any representatives, seemed to want to call out specific schools they had issues with. The book-banning thing (another inevitable post that I'll have to write) is another example of this-- a Democratic State Senator (I wish I could dig up which one, but I'd have to dig through Tik-Tok, which I don't want to do) pinned a pro-book banner to the wall simply by asking for receipts-- her child was not in any way, shape or form required to read the book in question. An alternative choice was offered- in other words, the notion that her child was forced to read this book that was offensive to the values of the parent was farcical bullshit.

Ask for receipts. Demand receipts. Make them name names and prove it. (I would co-sign this post as well. Do not bring a spoon to a knife fight.)

Second, and this is something I wish both parties would do more of- meet the voters where they are and not where you think they are (or worse should be.) This may annoy portions of your base, but the problem with living in both the Johnson County Fishbowl and reading reactions to all of this on Twitter is that it becomes increasingly easy to convince yourself that there's a whole crowd behind you, cheering you on. That's a dangerous trap to fall into and it's one I worry about. I do not like one-party rule. I don't particularly like either party, but if I'm stuck with them, I want them both at their fighting weight and more importantly, forced into a room where they have to compromise and make good policy. Because so far, one-party rule in Iowa doesn't have me particularly optimistic about the future. 

Finally (and perhaps most importantly), if you can roll it back all the way, what are you prepared to accept short of that?

Focusing on the damage this will do to rural schools is a great start. Asking how it's funding students and not systems when 41 counties in Iowa don't have access to a different school system is another fair question and if Kimmie and the GOP are dragging their feet on rural internet, smack 'em with that as well. But let's say that gets you somewhere and you break the trifecta. What then?

Means testing.

If they're serious about school choice, you want it to benefit folks who wouldn't ordinarily have access to private schools to begin with, right? So if you can afford to pay, why should taxpayers help you out? Fiscal responsibility isn't usually a drum that Democrats beat, but they have the opportunity to play one hell of a drum solo on this issue.

This also goes to the heart of my frustration with the whole thing: I am not at all convinced that this is going to benefit anyone other than the rich who can afford to send their kids to private schools anyway. This is about setting up a safe space for Conservatives who don't want their kids to be taught in a controlled environment, all the shit they're going to find out from their friends and the internet anyway. It's not about choice. It's not about funding students, it's about doubling down on culture war bullshit which is why I don't see how school choice could possibly be a solution to any of this culture war shit. If anything, it only exacerbates it. Maybe that's not true in other states, I don't know. But from where I'm sitting, it seems to make it worse, not better.

But, we should also prepare for the possibility that all the hysteria might be wrong. The outcomes might not be bad. Which only underlines the importance of remembering that your mileage may vary.


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