How Iowa’s governor beat the teachers unions and reopened schools

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.