Dubuque Telegraph Herald. January 18, 2023.
Editorial: Iowa Senate change could have chilling effect on public access
A change in the Iowa Senate last year appears even more immutable as the opening of the current legislative session revealed a more permanent home for press covering the chamber — in the public gallery above the Senate floor.
Senate Republicans last year barred reporters from the floor, overriding a century-old tradition. This year, the change became permanent with the addition of a press area built into the public gallery, where access to elected officials is severely restricted.
For decades, Senate protocol had reporters, photographers and multimedia journalists work at press benches along the front wall of the chamber, facing senators’ desks. That gave members of the media a good vantage point for capturing legislative debate among the senators. Journalists had ready access to ask questions of state senators — without disrupting the legislative process — to help bring clarity, accuracy and context to their news reporting.
The change is more than an assault on the press — it is a gut punch to Iowans. Reporters aren’t sitting there simply to create content for their publications. They are the eyes and ears of the people, a daily conduit of public access.
Iowa is one of just a handful of states that don’t allow reporters access to the chamber floor. In most states, the members of the media have a designated seating area, like Iowa’s press benches.
Worth noting — the Republican-led Iowa House of Representatives did not make such a change, leaving credentialed reporters on the floor as they have been in years past.
Additionally, Iowa Capitol Press Association’s annual legislative preview forum had to be canceled this year because Gov. Kim Reynolds, Republican Senate Majority Leader Jack Whitver and Republican House Speaker Pat Grassley all declined to attend the event.
This forum dates back more than 20 years, beginning with The Associated Press reporters. The press association noted, “This decision by Republican statehouse leaders ... continues an unsettling trend of reduced availability to Iowa journalists. The ICPA continues to believe elected officials who craft state laws and operate state government should be accessible to the journalists who monitor that work on behalf of all Iowans.”
Worth noting, all of the legislators from the TH coverage area — Republicans and Democrats — have been good about responding to Telegraph Herald reporters regarding legislative coverage and made themselves available to reporter Benjamin Fisher when he traveled to Des Moines last week for the session’s opening.
The change in the Senate impacts the legislators themselves, as well. For elected representatives, communicating with journalists helps get information to constituents. When seated on the floor, senators easily could hand off documents to reporters or explain proceedings or votes. Now senators mostly come to the House to track down a reporter.
Republican Senate leadership has embarked on a troubling pathway that impedes the state’s longstanding commitment to public access and transparency. In a year such as this one, with myriad issues Iowans are deeply concerned about on the docket, enabling objective reporting on those issues has never been more important.
Des Moines Register. January 22, 2023.
Editorial: Slow down on private-school giveaway. This isn’t what’s best for Iowa’s kids.
Reynolds is about to get her victory. But her promise of giving new freedom to every Iowa child rings hollow.
Any glimmers of hope that Republican legislators would resist giving away hundreds of millions of dollars to well-off families probably vanished Friday morning when Iowa House leaders indicated their intent to debate “school choice” on the chamber’s floor Monday.
None of Gov. Kim Reynolds’ previous proposals on this topic got that far, and it is exceedingly rare for the majority party to bring up a bill on the floor without being certain it will pass. Before long all Iowa families, regardless of their means, will be able to acquire several thousand dollars for each school-age child to pay for private, in most cases Christian, school tuition and other expenses.
Indeed, if they wish, Republicans can eschew prudence or discretion and let the opportunity to throw a party drive their timeline on an epochal upheaval of Iowa law. They did it last year by muscling through a transformation of the tax code just in time for Gov. Kim Reynolds to crow about it on national television when she delivered the GOP’s response to the State of the Union address.
Now they are poised to bring to a close Iowa’s commitment to provide every dollar available for the purpose of offering the very best free and robust K-12 education possible to every single Iowa child. And cheering during “School Choice Week,” starting Jan. 22, might just matter more than, say, getting an independent assessment of the costs and the prospects for enrollment at public and private schools.
If the House and Senate plow through objections and Democratic amendments Monday afternoon, the governor could have a grand bill signing Tuesday morning, when students from private schools are scheduled to have breakfast at the Capitol. Or at Saturday’s “School Expo” at the State Fairgrounds.
Are Republicans truly focused on ‘the child’?
Whatever incentives there are for moving quickly, Republican leaders need to slow down and at the very least wait for the nonpartisan Legislative Services Agency to evaluate the projections for how many students might use Education Savings Accounts and in turn how much public money might go toward religious and other private schooling, unavailable to be appropriated to public schools.
Without a “fiscal note,” our numbers for how the state budget might shake out years down the road come from the governor’s office, vague assurances from some lawmakers and one detailed but brief explanation from House Speaker Pat Grassley during a hearing Wednesday. Some Senate Republican leaders said tepidly that they hoped to see the analysis before voting.
Slowing down for a longer look at the dollars and cents could also provoke reflection on the gravity of — and the problems with — the entire premise.
Throughout the 11 days since this legislation was made available to the public, one of the talking points for its supporters has been apparent: Accuse opponents of getting bogged down on other issues and ignoring the real Iowa children whose needs “school choice” is about meeting.
If the people pushing the gas pedal to the floor to jet the Students First Act along want to debate the proposal on those terms, that’s great. This bill, and Republicans’ education agenda overall, evidences disregard for the welfare of those children in several ways.
No new choices for many Iowans
If the idea is that any Iowa family will be able to make a simple choice between public and private school environments, then the bill, as costly and ill-advised as it is, is a woeful half-measure. For the 2023-24 school year, an “education savings account” payment is about $7,600. That money does nothing for many families in one of the 41 counties with no private school who can’t manage two long drives a day. It does nothing for a family with a child rejected by private schools because of disability, class size or almost any reason the schools might come up with. It also leaves in limbo families interested in schools where tuition — not to mention fees and other expenses — is significantly more than $7,600; if their budget does not permit them to make up the difference, they would have to depend on tuition assistance or be left out of school choice.
So, really, according to supporters of this bill, only some families deserve this choice.
If this was for poor families, there would be income limits
The prospect of new financial aid providing more options to families who would choose a different school setting if their budget allowed has been the centerpiece of advocacy. If that’s so, then Republicans should have no issue with amending the bill to permanently restrict upper-middle-class and wealthy families from using education savings accounts (there are modest restrictions in the bill that vanish after two years). They have had no problem in recent years with trying to institute means tests for far more basic forms of aid for children, such as food.
Or, just maybe handing out $8,000 per child in a few years to well-off families already paying for private school — that can go straight into the vacation fund! — is a selling point of the law that is not being trumpeted. For some reason.
Legislators at fault for some public school struggles
We’ve said this over and over. If there are systemic deficiencies in Iowa’s public schools, legislators and the governor are the ones responsible to fix them. And to fix them they would do well to examine their role in creating some of the deficiencies — through inadequate funding, to be sure, but also through micromanaging of curriculum and operations that usurps the job of local school boards.
“Micromanaging” undersells things, of course: Restrictions on how history and current events can be taught and turf wars over pandemic response hurt public school students, and proposed laws to out transgender students to their families and chill discussion of LGBTQ issues would make things worse. The icing on the cake: The current bill goes out of its way to say that sort of thing WON’T happen to Iowa’s private schools.
A sad day for Iowa’s future
Reynolds is about to get her victory, installing policies that billionaires such as former Education Secretary Betsy DeVos have been trying to pass nationwide. And the governor worked hard for it, including by campaigning against fellow Republicans who had resisted “school choice” bills as bad for Iowa. But her promise of giving new freedom to every Iowa child rings hollow.