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Learn along with us as we examine the state of education in Iowa and the various issues it faces today.

Who got us here?

Illustration by Josie Fischels

Education in Iowa has been shaped throughout history by national movements and governors' spending priorities. And while today criticism of the quality of education at Iowa's public schools runs high, school has become more accessible than ever.

National movements have shaped Iowa's schools

Prior to 1960, the federal government did not tend to get involved much in public schools. Chris Ogren, a historian of education at the University of Iowa, said in the 1960s, after U.S. Supreme Court decisions around desegregation in schools, the federal government began expanding access to new populations of children all over the country through a series of bills.

Ogren said the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) was passed in 1965 to provide federal money to schools serving low-income students. The Education of All Handicapped Children Act, passed in 1975, required schools to provide the "least restrictive" learning environment to students with disabilities.

However, as access and federal enforcement of these laws expanded, SCOTUS in 1973 rejected the argument that basing school funding on local property taxes was a violation of equal protection under the law.

During this same time, or maybe because of it, a push began for accountability in education. More students taking exams raised concerns about lower average scores.

"People began to be more concerned about the quality of education. More students were taking the SAT exam, for example, so there was concern about a drop in average SAT scores," Ogren said. "But it's like, more people and more diverse people are taking the SAT."

Still, with the publication of the national report "A Nation at Risk" in 1983, fears continued to rise about a drop in test score averages. Focus turned to prioritize raising standardized test scores, pushed forward by the Bush Administration's "No Child Left Behind" and Obama Administration's "Race to the Top."

Iowa's public schools are now mostly state-funded, and state policies and spending priorities have changed

According to the National Center for Ed Statistics, in the 1960’s and 70’s and into the 1980’s, Iowa spent more than the national average per pupil.  

Iowa's school funding formula used to be 70% property taxes and 30% state funding. Now it’s flipped. Margaret Buckton, a partner at Iowa School Finance Information Service, believes this has created a disconnect between homeowners and their schools.  

Iowa is $1254 below the national average in per-pupil spending today. In 1983, at the start of former Governor Terry Branstad’s first term, it was 3% more than the national average.

Teacher salary and changing demographics are the big challenges today. The percentage of students on free and reduced lunch in Iowa has doubled from 20% to 40%. More kids come from low-income families, meaning more resources are needed to address mental health needs, food insecurity and homelessness.

Where we are today

It is common to hear that Iowa has fallen behind, but the state is #1 in the country for college credits earned per capita in high school. Lots of internships and work-based learning (a focus of Gov. Reynolds) are making work relevant to kids in school. And schools have more flexibility in spending money where the local community thinks it's most needed.

Jamie Vollmer is an educational consultant. He said public schools are the nation’s most precious resource. "There are 52 million kids in public schools. The vast majority of them are doing better than they’ve ever done in our history," said Vollmer. But, the vast majority of Iowans have no kids in public school and this puts them on the outside and makes them susceptible to lies. For example, the lie that public schools are failing, which is not true.

Vollmer has coined a phrase for those who want to believe that schools used to be better than they are today — nosthesia. Vollmer said it’s 50% nostalgia 50% amnesia. "Parts of the past take on a rosy hue. People want it to have been better when they were young."

Vollmer said when he's working with school districts he always has two aces up his sleeve. The first is that the more people know about their schools, the more they like what they see and the more they support them. And the second is that public schools have a tremendous story to tell. "It could be that the real truth is horrible, but instead it borders on miraculous."

Charity Nebbe is the host of IPR's Talk of Iowa
Katherine Perkins is IPR's Program Director for News and Talk
Josie Fischels is a Digital News producer at Iowa Public Radio. She is a 2022 graduate of the University of Iowa’s school of journalism where she also majored in theater arts (and, arguably, minored in the student newspaper, The Daily Iowan). Previously, she interned with the Denver Post in Denver, Colorado, and NPR in Washington, D.C.