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Gov. Reynolds on vaccines, school vouchers, and more issues facing Iowa

Published: Jan. 26, 2021 at 1:42 AM CST
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CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa (KCRG) - Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds spoke one-on-one with KCRG-TV9′s Beth Malicki about vaccine distribution, school vouchers, and the response to the derecho.

THE ONGOING CORONAVIRUS PANDEMIC AND VACCINE DISTRIBUTION IN IOWA

Gov. Reynolds emphasized that she’s trying to get more COVID-19 vaccine to Iowa as the state ranks near the bottom in allocations from the federal government. Her frustration is with the Trump administration, which she’d long supported and campaigned for.

“We were told we could call and order more, well that’s not right, talking about allocating the second dose and then backing away from that,” Reynolds said.

Despite some frustrations, Reynolds was quick to point out the speedy vaccine creation process and credited former President Donald Trump for that accomplishment.

The state is currently receiving 19,500 doses a week. But there are more than 500,000 Iowans aged 65 and older who can start getting vaccinated on February 1. The governor estimated vaccinating them all could take three months at the current pace. Reynolds said in two weeks the federal government’s allocation to Iowa is supposed to increase to 39,000. But this was set by the former Trump administration and could be subject to change.

Despite President Joe Biden urging all Americans to wear masks for the first 100 days of his administration, and for governors to include schools in mask mandates, Reynolds showed resistance to the idea of a nationwide requirement.

“I think it’s up to the states to make that decision,” Reynolds said. “I think Iowans have shown great personal responsibility.”

Reynolds said she made decisions throughout the pandemic based on data, but the numbers that hold the most stock to her are how many people are in Iowa’s hospitals with COVID-19.

“What we really need to monitor is hospitalizations. [In mid-November] we had community spread where it was it was impacting workforce and our ability to staff beds and we had a significant percentage of those who were hospitalized were hospitalized due to COVID,” Reynolds said.

This week, Iowans should have two new online places to get answers related to vaccine distribution. The first one Reynolds described would allow people to find distribution sites in their county.

“We’ll have a map on the [state’s coronavirus] website so Iowans can get onto and click their county and it will tell them what’s available in that county,” Reynolds said.

The second one will be a dashboard that includes how much vaccine supply the federal government has sent Iowa, and how many shots have gone into arms. Right now the state releases updates three times a week that only show how many shots have gone into arms, broken down by county.

With nearly $1 billion available in state funding through the budget surplus, reserve funds, and an emergency fund, some Democrats have pushed Reynolds to allocate those dollars to address hunger, homelessness, and small business needs. She said she’s only considering using state dollars once all federal dollars are utilized.

“You have to be responsible with the dollars that you’re receiving and make sure you are helping those that are hurting. But it would be irresponsible for me to tap into the cash reserves when we continue to have our federal partners working with us,” Reynolds said.

Regarding her performance in responding to the pandemic, Reynolds said they’ve learned a lot but haven’t been perfect. While she wouldn’t assign herself a letter grade on her performance in responding to the health crisis, she did give her team an A.

“I’m not going to give myself a grade, I’ll let Iowans ultimately do that,” Reynolds said.

EDUCATION

Gov. Reynolds’ legislative priorities this session fall under an umbrella she calls “School Choice.” The plan has three main components: vouchers for some public school students to pay for private education, allowing public charter schools, and ending “diversity plans” which prevent some school districts from allowing students to open enroll outside of the district.

The voucher plan has united teachers, administrators, and school boards against it. Reynolds said it’s “limited in scope” and will only be available to “about 32” schools in Iowa that the federal government has deemed failing due to ongoing low assessment scores.

“I don’t think it’s fair to kids and families that don’t have the financial means and they’re in failing schools not to have the same option that individuals and families that have the necessary means to transfer someplace else,” Reynolds said.

The Fordham Institute, a conservative think tank focused on education, did a longitudinal study on Ohio, the only other state with a voucher program similar to the one Iowa is considering. Ohio’s program, called EdChoice Scholarship, is also restricted to students from low performing schools. The study found, “the students who use vouchers to attend private schools fared worse on state exams when compared to their closely matched peers remaining in public schools.”

In response to that study, Reynolds said, “I bet I could go find some research that would counter that. We did a lot of research when we did this.”

Reynolds acknowledged students who use public dollars for private education will impact the schools they leave through less funding. Iowa awards state dollars based on school headcounts.

“Well they’re not teaching that child either,” Reynolds said, adding that the voucher program is “capped at $3 million, so it’s very narrow.”

While public educators in Iowa have come out strongly against vouchers, Reynolds didn’t disclose if her daughter, who teachers in a public school, supported them.

“My daughter supports our children getting the best education ever- let’s not pit teachers against parents, let’s not pit individuals that have the financial means to go and have a choice to families that don’t,” Reynolds said.

THE AUGUST 10 DERECHO AND THE GOVERNMENT’S RESPONSE

After a severe straight-line wind storm, called a derecho, hit Iowa on August 10, 2020, Gov. Reynolds issued a state disaster declaration and sought an expedited presidential disaster declaration. President Trump approved the governor’s request and later briefly visited the state.

But for those in the path of the storm, especially in hard-hit Cedar Rapids, the response felt inadequate and slow, especially in the first week. TV9 reported multiple humanitarian crises unfolding, including non-profits like the Red Cross struggling to stand up shelters and other basic needs responses due to the pandemic.

Reynolds said she didn’t think she personally could have responded any faster to the disaster, which is now the most expensive thunderstorm in United States’ history. But, she emphasized that the local municipalities have to be organized and communicate to her to mobilize help like the Iowa National Guard and Department of Transportation. Both were part of the response in Linn County and beyond, but initially, leaders in Cedar Rapids seemed reluctant to utilize outside support.

“It’s about working with local governments, we have a system in place. It’s a bottom-up [process], I can’t come in and take over. As a state we rely on our local governments and emergency managers and our mayors and our board of supervisors they have to ask, we have a process in place,” Reynolds said.

Watch the entire 32-minute interview with Gov. Kim Reynolds below:

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