Education department expertise loses out to political power in school voucher legislation

The Iowa Department of Education has 220 staff members and a budget of more than $10 million. But it has zero independence or political power.

That's why school legislation in Iowa is driven by the political agenda of the governor, Republican Party leaders and this year, by the Americans for Prosperity, a right wing organization funded largely by the Koch brothers, and Betsy DeVos, ex-head of the Trump administration's education department.

DeVos has long advocated for school vouchers, which funnel public tax dollars to private schools. While her agenda was thwarted on the national level in her years as education secretary, she visited Iowa in 2019 and met with Gov. Reynolds and other GOP leaders to urge support of vouchers.

Click here to read how DeVos and other special interests have been pushing vouchers in Iowa and across the nation in recent months.

The state education department closely monitors school performance and annually determines schools that score poorly on student achievement. Yet when the governor and state legislature considers ways to combat poor school performance, the education department appears to be watching, rather than leading the way toward a solution.

This year's legislation to establish new rules for the formation of charter schools and fund vouchers didn't originate with the state education department.

It came straight from the governor's office and was pushed through the Senate education subcommittee, full education committee and the full Senate in less than a week. All votes were along party lines. The bill is now before the House for consideration.

Asked what role the state education department had creating the voucher and charter school legislation, top officials had this response:

"The Iowa Department of Education had the opportunity to review the bill language and provide feedback. Final policy language of any Governor bill is at the discretion of the Governor and her policy team."

Department officials refused to provide further details of its "feedback," or the reasons why the education department's lobbyist had filed "in favor" of the legislation.

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