Educators at Iowa’s ‘failing schools’ say they are used as part of political agenda

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Stressed out teacher holding bullseye target in classroom. (iStock image)

How do educators at 34 Iowa schools feel about spending the past year hearing elected officials say they are running “failing schools”?

Leaders at 13 schools explained the shortcomings of the metric that assigned them the “failing” label, as well as the unique challenges students and staff confronted — even before legislation introduced at the Statehouse singled them out as places where families could get state assistance to leave, they told IowaWatch.

“Failing schools” is hyperbole for schools designated by the state as “comprehensive.” These are the Title I schools that score in the bottom 5 percent in the state based on students’ performance on the Iowa Statewide Assessment of Student Progress test, and/or for high schools, have a graduation rate below 67.1 percent.

IowaWatch in a year-long investigation found that although each state is required to identify the bottom-scoring 5 percent of Title I schools every three years, it doesn’t mean these schools are “failing.”

A common misconception is that all schools are the same, said Jason Aker, principal of Baxter Elementary School in Baxter.

“‘Thirty-four failing schools’ is a really crummy way of saying that, because the answer is simple; it’s the bottom 5 percent. So there will always be a bottom 5 percent,” he said. “So it’s really a tragedy on some level to lump schools in there and say that they’re failing, because that is not the case.”

One spokesman for Gov. Kim Reynolds did not respond to multiple requests for interviews, while another spokesman declined to comment. Sen. Amy Sinclair, R-Allerton and chair of the Iowa Senate Education Committee, did not respond to requests for interviews.

Despite political rhetoric, educators from schools on the state’s comprehensive list said they are seeing successes and finding solutions. 

Every spring, Expo Alternative Learning Center in Waterloo erupts in celebration. For many high schools, graduation is serious. At Expo, it is living, breathing joy.

A student graduates from Expo in Waterloo in 2020. (Photo courtesy of Waterloo public schools)

“We have one of our teachers that’s a DJ, and every kid walks up to their own song, across the stage, and you’ll see some kids dancing with the superintendent on the stage. And we tell people, ‘Cheer as much as you want.’ They’re screaming, they’re out of their seats; it’s standing-room only,” said Cary Wieland, Expo’s principal. “These are some of the first kids that have graduated in their families.”

More than 550 students attend Expo, which serves sixth through 12th grades, but a total of 1,100 to 1,200 attend at some point during the course of a school year. In 2020, 155 students graduated, and over the past few years, the district has achieved the highest graduation rates in its history, thanks to catching students at Expo who likely would have otherwise dropped out, Wieland said.

In February 2021, the school was designated a Leader in Me Lighthouse School for outstanding achievement, based on a standard set by leadership training service FranklinCovey. And in March, the Iowa Department of Education honored Expo as a model school for its positive behavioral Interventions and supports work during the 2019-2020 school year.

Despite those accolades, Expo is on Iowa’s list of 34 comprehensive schools. 

This list helps the U.S. Department of Education identify schools that could use more support. And the fact that comprehensive schools have a higher percentage of poverty and racial minorities is no coincidence; it’s by design. Only Title I schools are eligible for these funds, because the goal is to target schools in lower socioeconomic areas. Title I schools are those schools with at least 40 percent of their student populations coming from low-income families.

This means schools in which most students are from wealthier families can have lower scores than Title I schools, but they would not be eligible for comprehensive support.

According to the Iowa Department of Education allocation summary, state schools received $96,882,253 in Title I funds for the 2020-2021 school year. That amount increased to $101,854,621 for the 2021-2022 school year, according to data from the U.S. Department of Education.

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Because schools identified as comprehensive have higher rates of poverty by design, they also have more English-language learners and more racial minorities than the statewide average.

Any correlation between lower academic successes and students who are either racial minorities or live in higher-poverty households has nothing to do with potential, and everything to do with access, said Mekisha Barnes, principal at Weeks Middle School in Des Moines. Barnes is the former principal at King Elementary School, which is on the comprehensive list.

“Blaming families or socioeconomic status is a scapegoat. We know – research has shown over and over and over again – when states and schools invest in early childhood education, early intervention, provide the supports from 7:45 to 2:30, and they do that systematically with quality instruction, conditions, and provide that educational experience, with, again, the conditions, students achieve,” Barnes said. “It’s not a parent involvement problem. It’s not a poverty problem. It is not a kid problem, and it is not an adult/mothers/literacy level problem.”

The problem, Barnes said, is that schools are not funded equitably.

“There’s a cause and effect in this relationship, and schools are not in the position that they’re at by themselves,” she said. “We can’t do things without resources and without permission and direction.”

Most experts and educators agreed that the term “failing school” is the result of politics colliding with education, seemingly ignoring thousands of puzzle pieces to focus on just one.

“Iowa schools get their teachers from the University of Iowa, Iowa State, [University of Northern Iowa],” said Pat Coen, superintendent of the Burlington Community School District, which has three schools on the comprehensive list. “They’re phenomenal teachers, but the second they come to Burlington they’re a ‘failure.’ These are the same people populating all the schools in Iowa that are populating our school.”

Gov. Kim Reynolds

‘FAILING SCHOOLS’ AS POLITICAL REFRAIN

In her January 2021 Condition of the State speech, Reynolds advocated for a “school choice” agenda to help “students trapped in a failing school.” It was a refrain repeated by the governor and other lawmakers over the course of the 2021 legislative session, pointing to the 34 schools on the comprehensive list as the “failing schools.”

On May 19, Reynolds signed into law House File 813, which created a legal pathway for opening charter schools in Iowa, allowing groups to bypass local school boards and receive approval directly from the state Department of Education.

On Nov. 18, the Iowa State Board of Education authorized a set of rules and a timeline that paved the way for approved applicants to begin opening charter schools in fall 2022.

Under the new law, charter schools will be publicly funded, have more operational regulatory freedom, and be able to follow separate curricula and structures. Iowa has two charter schools, both high schools, in Maynard and Storm Lake.

About six school districts and founding groups had inquired about starting charters as of November 2021, Janell Brandhorst, the Iowa Department of Education’s chief of school improvement, told the Des Moines Register.

Passing the charter-school bill was a victory for Reynolds, who since 2018 has been advocating for education savings accounts, sometimes referred to as voucher programs, that would redirect state money to private, religious, or home schools. Iowa has 327 public school districts.

On Tuesday, in her 2022 Condition of the State speech Reynolds pivoted in message, but continued to push toward the same goal: making it possible to funnel public funds to private institutions.

Reynolds said she will introduce legislation allowing middle- and low-income families and students on individualized education plans to receive state funding to go to the school of their choice. About 70 percent of those funds, about $5,300, would go into an account for the child, and the remaining 30 percent would be distributed by the state to smaller school districts. IEPs are special education services tailored to individual students. 

Private schools are not currently required to provide special education services. Reynolds did not specify whether families’ schools of choice would be required to accept IEPs, which are paid for by federal and state funds. Currently in Iowa, many students attending private schools who also need special education services go to their local public school just for their IEP.

The effort goes back to 2019 when Reynolds met with former federal education secretary Betsy DeVos, along with lobbyists and lawmakers, for a discussion not open to the public or media. There, DeVos pitched a voucher proposal. DeVos has advocated for voucher programs and worked with school-choice groups for decades.

Iowa Senate Education Committee Chair Sinclair attended that meeting and has been an outspoken voice in the school-choice debate.

Iowa Rep. Skyler Wheeler, R-Orange City, told IowaWatch he thinks education savings accounts are the best solution.

“I don’t think that [the federal Every Student Succeeds Act] uses a standard that’s meaningful because schools that are succeeding according to ESSA still have students that are struggling and aren’t having their needs met and vice-versa. Students aren’t widgets on an assembly line, they’re individuals with unique aptitudes and needs,” he wrote in an email to IowaWatch.

Chairs and tables are stacked in a classroom with blackboard. (iStock image)

STIGMA FOR STUDENTS

Being thrust into political debates is difficult, not just for staff, but for students, too.

“Our kids hear that too, right? ‘I go to a failing school.’ What does that mean or suggest to them as individuals? I think we have an obligation as a community of adults to celebrate the things our kids are doing well,” said Sheena Canady, principal of George Washington Carver Academy in Waterloo, the state’s first STEM middle school.

Jessica Styron is a Des Moines mom whose oldest son attended King Elementary School for first grade. Starting in second grade, she open-enrolled him at Hubbell Elementary School because he wasn’t being challenged enough, she said. He is now in middle school. Her second son is currently in kindergarten at King.

Her sons’ experiences have been like night and day, she said.

“This year at King with my youngest, I can see that the teacher he has is really going above and beyond at trying to be engaging for all of her students. I don’t know if that’s a difference with the school or just a teacher difference, but I appreciate that, and he really likes going to school,” Styron said.

King Elementary School in Des Moines is one of 34 schools on the comprehensive list, which policymakers and lawmakers have referred to as “failing schools.” (Photo by Suzanne Behnke / IowaWatch on Jan. 21, 2022.)

After the family’s first experience with King, Styron tried to enroll her younger son at Hubbell, but it was full. She is relieved her son is thriving at King, but even if he wasn’t, a charter school or a voucher program, such as one lawmakers have proposed, wouldn’t be an option, she said.

“Thinking about some of the financial situations of my neighbors, even driving to another school is kind of a bad solution, because whether it’s a transportation issue or where you work or where you live, it’s just inconvenient,” Styron said “I just would like to see them invest into these struggling schools.” 

If tax dollars are funneled to private schools, the divide between wealthier communities and poorer communities will only widen, as will the gap between children with disabilities and those without, agreed Marshall Lewis, superintendent of the Ruthven Ayrshire Community School District and principal of the elementary school, which is on the state’s comprehensive list, and Chris Myers, the district’s curriculum director.

“The argument that the intent there is to serve all kids and provide them equal access to education is totally counter-intuitive … because you’re basically taking your poorest, least accessible kids and you’re leaving them in a public school while you drain all of the financial support that student should be receiving, and you’re draining, in theory, the top academic, high achievers,” Lewis said. “Public schools will look like they’re failing more because we’ll have less funds coming in, we’ll have the lower-ability students stay where they’re at, because they won’t be allowed to go to the private schools, and so you will see that disparity grow.

“And it will be an easy target for public schools that are doing the best job, I believe, to meet the needs of all kids, and then be termed ‘failing schools.’”

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Iowa schools perform very well overall, but taking money out of a school’s general fund and streaming it to private institutions undercuts their efforts, critics say. Even with some financial help, middle- and especially low-income families don’t have the financial resources to send their children to private schools, which makes financial assistance from the state more likely to perpetuate inequities, rather than leveling the playing field, said Mike Beranek, president of the Iowa State Education Association.

“Iowa ranks very high nationally with how our students are doing, but we still have to identify the bottom 5 percent,” Beranek said. “So to take that narrative and to use that to punish our public schools, when we are performing very well, is something that is irresponsible.”

Of the 34 Iowa schools identified as comprehensive, 85 percent are above the state average for poverty, 71 percent are above the state average for special education identification and 65 percent are above the state average for the percentage of students who are racial minorities, said Cory Johnson, curriculum director for the Burlington School District.

“The focus is on identifying where there are the biggest pockets of need and allocating resources towards those needs and really identifying why those needs exist,” said Johnson, who was previously on Iowa’s Statewide School Improvement Team. “This whole process is not at all about penalizing anybody. … What was unfortunate was that there are some politicians trying to shift the focus away from the model as it’s designed and as it is currently working.”

Iowa has nine Area Education Agencies, which provide public schools with support and a framework for accountability. Schools identified as comprehensive begin working with an AEA to conduct an assessment, create an action plan and receive support in the form of visits, training and other resources from their AEA school improvement consultant, explained Lisa Hawker, literacy and school improvement consultant at Iowa’s Mississippi Bend Area Education Agency.

“This is really done in the spirit of continuous improvement and support,” said Shane Williams, director of educational services at the Mississippi Bend AEA. “Whether you’re a high-performing school or a low-performing school or somewhere in-between, the idea of continuous improvement, constantly trying to get better, reviewing your data, setting priorities, trying new initiatives, evaluating the effectiveness of those initiatives, is all part of the state’s continuous improvement process.”

Despite the refrain of “failing” coming from the Capitol, the state’s Department of Education explains on its website: “If my school is identified as Comprehensive or Targeted, does it mean it is a bad school? No, it simply means these are schools that need help and support to improve, and Iowa has the right system in place to provide that support. It is important to understand a school’s local context and improvement efforts that are underway.”

And that local context is everything, educators said.

“Any school district is a microcosm of the community in which it exists. The health of the community and the health of the districts are completely interrelated,” Johnson said.

In the Burlington Community School District, 256 youths were classified as homeless in 2020, said Cassie Gerst, the district’s outreach and grant coordinator. The classification of homeless is based on the McKinney-Vento Act, which defines homelessness and unaccompanied homeless youth, and provides rights and services to children and youth experiencing homelessness.

The district works with 42 partners in the community. In supporting the school district, they also help support the entire community, she said.

In Waterloo, figuring out the underlying causes of academic struggles at Fred Becker Elementary wasn’t a mystery for Principal Alex Hansen, who grew up in poverty in the same community he now works in.

“I had very involved parents, but when I went to school every day, there were things on my mind that non-poverty households didn’t have to worry about,” he said. “Kids in poverty can still function at a high level. If you’re not in tune with [poverty] it can be a barrier. If you are in tune with it, you can remove those barriers.”

Not being in tune with poverty is also a drawback for those more financially well off, he said.

“They’ll take that opportunity to run and not realize how those very things that they’re running from can also be the things that their child can grow the most from,” he said. “I would hate to see parents who see those as negative stereotypes leave that and deprive their children of life-learning opportunities.”

Group of young students stand together in classroom. (iStock image)

FUNDING AND THE FUTURE

Requiring each state to identify their lowest-scoring 5 percent of Title I schools every three years is a method for allocating federal funding to the schools that theoretically need it most, said an expert.

“[Previous federal education law] No Child Left Behind is what actually tried to bring accountability to Title I, and that’s how you could even generate something like a bottom 5 percent,” said Nora Gordon, an economist and professor at Georgetown University’s McCourt School of Public Policy.

High-poverty schools also usually have a wider variety of needs than their wealthier counterparts, such as more English-language learners, more minority students, more students on Individualized Education Programs and more programs to help low-income families. And because every dollar has to stretch further at a school with more needs, equal amounts don’t translate to equality.

A school district with high poverty has more financial hurdles to clear than a wealthier district. This is because money raised locally has fewer strings attached than money coming from Title I, said Gordon, also a fellow at the Urban Institute.

“Money that’s coming through Title I is more restricted, and it’s especially more restricted if you’re in one of these comprehensive schools, because then there’s this whole other piece that comes into play about evidence,” Gordon said. 

The federal Department of Education sends funding for Title I and special funding, such as for schools designated as comprehensive or targeted, to the state. Then, the state distributes that money to the schools. Everything is on a reimbursement basis.

FULL LIST: Iowa’s 34 schools on the comprehensive list

“Comprehensive is a three-year cycle, where once you’re designated, the idea there is that you have stable funding as a school, and you actually have some opportunity to make some change,” said Jay Pennington, chief of the bureau of information and analysis services at the Iowa Department of Education. “Under No Child Left Behind, we had 65 to 70 percent of schools on a list, [and] the amount of money each school received was less impactful. So that was sort of the policy decision made around ESSA.”

That three-year cycle was interrupted by COVID-19, so ratings and support statuses for comprehensive and targeted schools nationwide have been carried over for an extra year, he said.

Although ESSA doesn’t spread funding as thin as NCLB, Iowa still doesn’t have enough funding targeted at schools in areas with higher poverty, said Margaret Buckton, a professional advocate for Rural School Advocates of Iowa and executive director and legislative analyst for the Urban Education Network of Iowa.

“The average funding nationwide in the 47 states that have a poverty factor is 22 percent,” she said. “Iowa’s weighting for poverty is just this tiny bit in the formula called at-risk funding, and it’s…only $17.1 million statewide. That’s less than half the weighting Des Moines would get if [Iowa] had the average for the country.”

Iowa also has dropout prevention money that is taken from local property taxes, but that amount is based on enrollment, and does not factor in poverty, Buckton said.

“A good example of this is if you compare Ankeny and Des Moines. For example, Ankeny had 16.7 percent of their kids on free and reduced-price lunch [as of two years ago]. That’s over 2,000 low-income students in Ankeny. Their total of combined at-risk money and dropout prevention money is $3.3 million. That works out to $1,642 per low-income kid. But if you look at Des Moines, since there’s 77 percent poverty, they’ve got 26,000 low-income kids. So their total only works out to $401 per low-income student.”

Concerns over funding are on educators’ minds heading into 2022.

Although the charter school legislation passed in 2021, Senate File 159, which would have created the “Student First Scholarship Program,” did not make it to Reynolds’ desk. According to the state’s Legislative Services Agency, the scholarships would have created a $2.1 million loss to public school funding in 2023, increasing to $3.8 million in 2025.

“Anything that’s introduced [in 2021], even if it does not clear our self-imposed funnel deadlines, which is what happened in the case of Senate File 159, can be introduced [in 2022]. So it’s still technically eligible for discussion,” said Melissa Peterson, government relations specialist for the Iowa State Education Association. “We don’t see anything wrong with private or religious education. We just don’t think taxpayers should have to pay for it.”

More school choice and voucher program legislation is expected to come back up in 2022, said Sen. Claire Celsi, D-West Des Moines. The legislative session began Jan. 10.

“I think [voucher legislation] will come back and pass in the Senate and not in the House. It would kill rural communities. It would gut our public schools,” said Celsi, a member of the Senate Education Committee.

Smaller class sizes and better pay for teachers are proven strategies for helping kids, and especially minority students, do better in school and graduate, which then produces the workforce Iowa needs, she said.

“Ninety-three percent of kids go to public schools. Why should taxpayers pay for parallel school systems?” Celsi said. “I fault [Reynolds] for leaving so much low-hanging fruit.”

Leading up to the 2022 legislative session, activists for Americans for Prosperity-Iowa have been knocking on doors to promote possible upcoming education savings accounts legislation in suburban Des Moines. AFP is a conservative advocacy group funded by Koch Industries and unnamed donors.

For schools like Expo in Waterloo, students just aren’t going to be able to use a voucher to go to another school, whether legislation passes in the future or not, said Wieland, the school’s principal. However, draining tax dollars from public schools will cause class sizes to increase and it will remove supports that work for kids, he said.

“When we start looking at some of these political barriers, it hurts the heart. It hurts the soul. Because we see this on the front lines every single day, and we want people to understand that our kids are good,” Wieland said.

Leah McBride Mensching is a freelance reporter for IowaWatch. She has worked as a reporter, editor, photographer and media researcher over the past 15 years, both as an independent journalist and as an editorial manager for WAN-IFRA, the global organization of the world’s press. She earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism and mass communication from Iowa State University and a master’s degree in journalism from Northwestern University.