Iowa was once known as the crème de la crème in primary education, raising children who ranked near the top in college readiness and math and reading scores.
Now, the status quo is mediocrity. The latest evidence: In a nation known for its foreign-language illiteracy, Iowa ranks below average in the percentage of students learning a world language.
This is the result, in part, of the state's modus operandi of underfunding education. Many Iowa schools can't afford to offer more than one foreign language in high school and nothing in lower grades.
Continuing to fail, however, need not be a fait accompli. Gov. Kim Reynolds has focused on expanding opportunities in science, technology, engineering and math for students. These topics are critical for Iowa's competitiveness. But we should not send the message that mastering coding language is more important than learning Chinese or Spanish.
As the U.S. lags other countries in language learning, Iowa has fallen behind its neighboring states.
About 15 percent of Iowa's K-12 students were enrolled in a foreign language course in 2014-15, according to a report published by the American Councils for International Education and the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages.
That puts Iowa 35th out of 50 states and the District of Columbia, and near the bottom in the Midwest. Nebraska, the Dakotas and Missouri have a higher percentage of students learning a foreign language.
Evidence shows the earlier students get instruction in a foreign language, the more likely they will become proficient and the better they will do academically overall. Yet Iowa districts are not required to offer courses until high school. Most elementary schools offer nada.
Wisconsin ranked No. 3 in the report, with more than 36 percent of students learning a foreign language. The state requires schools to offer foreign language courses starting in seventh grade and encourages schools to start earlier. And it offers the Seal of Biliteracy, which a student receives after taking a test to show proficiency in English and another language.
Iowa lawmakers failed to pass a bill allowing the seal this past legislative session.
One problem Iowa and most states face is a shortage of qualified teachers, according to the American Academy of Arts & Sciences. Iowa teacher salaries rank in the middle of the country, so the odds are against it in the race for teachers — particularly after the Legislature passed the law this year shrinking public employees' collective-bargaining rights.
The classroom shouldn't be the only opportunity for foreign-language learning. The American Academy of Arts & Sciences report recommends partnerships between businesses and schools, more opportunities for students to study abroad and ways for students to immerse themselves in other cultures.
Business leaders understand that as commerce becomes increasingly global, knowledge of another language is de rigueur. National security experts urge students to learn critical-need languages, such as Arabic, Korean and Russian.
Yet an anti-immigrant zeitgeist can undermine these efforts. Qatar Foundation International, which supports Arabic language instruction in U.S. schools, faces anti-Islamic opposition. In 2015, residents in Houston protested at an Arabic Immersion Magnet School.
Federal policies can also build walls between cultures. A bill to curb legal immigration, which President Donald Trump promoted this week, would favor immigrants who know English. Such a move would not help efforts to increase bilingualism among native-born Americans.
Iowa is justifiably proud of its international connections, including having a former governor as ambassador in Beijing. Our new governor and other state leaders can take advantage of this to promote learning Chinese or another foreign language. Iowa can be on the avant-garde in foreign language education.
Des Moines Register