We need to invest in public education

Marla and Carla Seifkas were twins who were a year older than me. They attended the Leslie Country School which was about two miles from our adjoining farms. The year they went to “Primary” (as kindergarten was called in those days), their parents would often take me with them when they picked Marla and Carla up from school.

Knowing I was opinionated even at age four, I think they were hoping I would convince my parents that I wanted to go to country school.

My mother had taught country school and was dead set against it. She had been barely older than her students, was out in the country with a group of children, had no phone, no car, and limited access if there had been any type of emergency.

So she insisted her own children received an education in town.

A few years later, the Leslie School closed as Iowa moved from about 2000 school districts to a much smaller number of consolidated districts. Weldon, where I attended school in Southern Iowa, graduated four students in 1957, the year I attended primary. A few years later, it became part of Clarke Community Schools and now is one of the many closed buildings across Iowa.

The Leslie Schoolhouse still stands and serves as the Knox Township Hall. I travel by on the way to my mother’s 80-acre farm and am reminded of the changes I’ve seen in education over the years.

When I joined the legislature, there were about 375 school districts in Iowa. That number today is 333. Districts have consolidated about as much as they can. In the last eight years alone, 105 public school buildings have closed their doors for good. That means many small towns have lost their only school and it makes luring new jobs and new families to their community even more difficult.

There’s no question we face significant challenges in education today. The need for Iowa’s children to have a world class education has never been higher. Competitiveness in the global economy is much higher than in 1957 when my parents were making the decision to send me to town for an education.

Our young people are competing with students around the globe today and require learning more than one language, having exceptional math and science skills, keeping up with rapid changes in technology, and communicating effectively through various modes.

You’ve probably heard a lot of rhetoric from Gov. Reynolds and Republican lawmakers about education the last few weeks.

They say they are giving schools record increases in funding, but they won’t tell you it hasn’t even kept up with rising costs.

They say they are strong supporters of public schools, but forget to mention they’re planning to shift hundreds of millions from public schools to private schools and homeschools instead.

They say there are hundreds of new teachers, but won’t tell you class sizes have increased in the first and second grades.

You’ll also never hear about the 105 schools that have closed and the hundreds of millions of our tax dollars have been spent on corporate tax giveaways the last few years.

The sad truth is that the rhetoric you hear from Gov. Reynolds and Republican lawmakers doesn’t match reality.

Public schools are struggling today to use the limited dollars they get from the state to keep up with the demands our kids and workforce need today. They’ve been asked to do more with less time and time again.

I believe we have to do better. It’s time to invest in our schools and make them the best in the country again.

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State Rep. Mark Smith of Marshalltown serves the 71st District in the Iowa House and is the Iowa House Democratic Leader.