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The Fort Dodge education crisis

By Keegan Jones

Recently The Messenger ran an editorial discussing the education funding increase passed in the 2020 legislative session. This funding increase was necessary, and I applaud our state lawmakers for managing to continue increasing the K-12 budget given the restrictions that COVID-19 has placed on our state. Broad increases in funding from one year to the next are undoubtedly an easy surface level solution to address yearly changes in educational needs. However, in prior years, that funding hasn’t recognized each district has varying needs, and if the increased budget isn’t earmarked to address those needs, then it will not help at-risk districts like ours.

Fort Dodge is home to dedicated, hardworking teachers and students that are just as capable as anywhere else. Unfortunately, there are unique challenges that face this district and the odds are stacked against our students. One out of every five adults in Fort Dodge lives below the poverty line. Over half of our students are on free and reduced lunch, and for many of those students lunch will be the only meal they eat that day. Poverty is presenting circumstances that are destroying families in our community and creates yet another obstacle for our students to overcome just to try and keep pace with their peers in Ames or West Des Moines.

As our public schools continue to struggle to get the funding that they desperately need, St. Edmond Catholic School secured between $350K and $1 million from the federal government (source: U.S. Department of the Treassury website) in addition to the $105K in CARES Act funding they received from the state (source: Iowa Department of Education website). Providing taxpayer money to private schools and churches while leaving public schools unprotected is appalling.

Furthermore, we expect teachers to face this struggle alone. While elected leaders continue to force teachers to buy their own supplies, they allocate funding for military style equipment in local police departments. In an area as underserved as Fort Dodge, we cannot simply allocate funding equivalent to other districts. It will take a funding increase, and a cooperative effort from teachers, students, parents and local leaders to address specific issues and ensure funding is being distributed in the proper places.

COVID-19 and the lack of clear government guidance on a return-to-school plan will only amplify the unjust circumstances facing our education community this fall. Increased funding to poverty-stricken districts is more imperative than ever. If our elected continue to mismanage taxpayer dollars our schools will fail, and the damage to the future of our community will be irreversible.

State Sen. Tim Kraayenbrink is the vice chair of the Appropriations Committee, a member of the Education Committee, and the chair of the Education Appropriation subcommittee. I reached out to Sen. Kraayenbrink and asked what he has done to address the education crisis facing our community.

Sen. Kraayenbrink’s response to my concerns was this: “Why are you not talking about the positive things that have happened in our state since I’ve been elected six years ago? Lowest unemployment, top in high school graduation rate, voted one of the top states to live, (we would be No. 1 if we could lower corporate tax rate).”

Senator, I’m not talking about those things because they are not helping our community. You point to low unemployment across the state, but poverty levels in Fort Dodge are still above the state average. You point to high graduation rates, but at FDSH they are and have been steadily below the state average.

If you believe that a lower corporate tax rate will increase economic opportunity for Iowans that is great, but it won’t truly help all Iowans because most students in this district aren’t equipped for those jobs. They are not graduating with the same academic resume and career skills as their peers in other public-school districts and have to work twice as hard because they weren’t given equitable opportunities.

Senator, you may be doing what you were elected to do in the eyes of your colleagues, but those in your district feel ignored. Your leadership roles put you in a better position than anyone else to address the inequalities facing your constituents, yet for six years you have remained silent. We may not agree on the best way to fix these problems, but these problems are real. Fort Dodge public school students do not deserve to be left behind simply because of where they were born. Something needs to be done, and you are in the best position do it.

Keegan Jones is a 2013 graduate of Fort Dodge Senior High and currently works as a financial analyst and consultant.

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