“Kids were falling behind,” she says in an interview. “In our largest school districts … we had the teachers unions that were winning out, and we had kids that hadn’t been in a classroom since August. ... We had teachers that had been unable to connect with students for over nine weeks, and there was nothing that they could do about it. The lessons for the day ranged from 60 minutes to 90 minutes, and they were done.” Most of the affected students were disadvantaged kids in the inner-city public school system. “We had 55 percent in one of our public schools of high school kids and 21 percent [of] middle school kids that were getting a D or an F in the fall. We saw a 21 percent decrease in first-grade literacy.” Some schools weren’t even holding final exams. “They were just doing chapter exams because they knew that the kids couldn’t pass a comprehensive final exam based on the amount of time that they were teaching the courses.”
Reynolds decided that enough was enough. “The metrics support the kids being in school. We can do it safely,” she concluded. In her Condition of the State address on Jan. 12, Reynolds called on lawmakers “to immediately send a bill to my desk that gives parents the choice to send their child back to school full time.” The state Senate quickly approved the measure 29-18, the House passed it 59-39, and Reynolds signed it into law on Jan. 29. Just one lone Democrat had the courage to breaks ranks with the unions and support it.
Before introducing the legislation, Reynolds began attending local school board meetings via Zoom so she could hear the concerns of parents. She was shocked to see the contempt with which parents were treated. “The school boards were bullying parents, literally bullying,” she tells me. “I had parents tell me they were afraid to go to the meetings. They weren’t allowed to ask questions. They weren’t given answers.”
At one meeting, Reynolds says, a parent who is a professor at Iowa State University explained that she was teaching in person and offered to walk the school board through the mitigation measures the university had put in place. The school board wasn’t interested. “They said, ‘If you want your child to be in the classroom, then you should just go buy a house in the neighboring district,’” Reynolds says. “Now, how just unconscionable is that?”
Reynolds thought Iowa had broken the stranglehold of the teachers unions in 2017, when she was lieutenant governor and the state eliminated collective bargaining for public-sector unions. But despite those reforms, she found that many local school boards remained beholden to the unions. At one school board meeting, she says, she learned of a “teachers [union] in one of our larger metropolitan areas, Des Moines, that actually took a vote not to be considered essential workers” to avoid returning to the classroom. Parents were saying teachers were essential, and the board told them that, actually, they were not. “I was listening. ... I could not believe I was hearing what I was hearing. ... They weren’t putting the students first.”
To change that, Reynolds has introduced the Students First Act. It mandates open enrollment in all public schools, so parents can decide where to send their kids; allows the creation of charter schools independent of local school districts; and provides students in low-performing public schools with education savings accounts, so parents can choose where their education dollars are spent. “We need to turn this over to parents,” she says. “My definition of local control is parental control.”
Reynolds believes the pandemic has created a moment of clarity, when frustrated parents across the country have finally had enough and are ready to take back control of their children’s education. “If we don’t take advantage of this moment … then shame on us,” she says. If only we saw that kind of boldness in the Oval Office. As more Americans learn about Reynolds’s leadership, perhaps one day we will.