Education savings grants signed through Senate subcommittee

Education savings grants were the topic of a Wednesday evening subcommittee. The bill was signed through subcommittee by Republican Senators Brad Zaun and Jerry Behn. Democrat Sen. Claire Celsi refused to sign.

“The first thing I want to say is this money will come straight out of the pot as public school money, so unless you know where to find an extra $265 million — let me know,” Celsi said.

Trish Wilger of the Iowa Alliance for Choice in Education supports the bill, obviously.

“School choices makes a tremendous difference to Iowa families,” Wilger said. “I cannot tell you how many families have come to me to talk about the (School Tuition Organizations) STO program and how grateful they are to receive a grant that allows them to make a choice in education.”

Connie Ryan of Interfaith Alliance of Iowa Action said the group strongly opposes the bill. She cited the Iowa Constitution, saying the state shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.

According to Ryan, 97 percent of the accredited nonpublic schools are religious institutions. The bill, she said, would be unconstitutional.

The next speaker said she benefited from education choice.

“I would say that every school promotes a worldview and every school imposes that worldview on students,” she said. “I appreciate the fact when my parents and I choose Christian education, we could choose a value system we agreed with.”

She talked about the Joshua Christian Academy and it’s success for the urban community.

“I’ve witness this firsthand, schools can have a trans-formative effect on families,” she said. “School choice is not just beneficial for students, but also for families.”

Johnston School Board president Greg Dockum said he agrees parents should have the choice to enroll a child in private religious school. But public taxpayer funds should not be used for that purpose, he said.

“Taxpayer dollars should only be used for education that is open and inclusive to all Iowans,” he said.

Concerns with accountability and transparency were also on Dockum’s list. He added if the legislature wants to help schools provide an education that gets further away from “one-size-fits-all” then it should reduce regulations on local school boards.

“I’d ask that we all focus on public policy that encourages cooperation, not competition,” he said.

One Iowa Action’s Keenan Crow spoke against the bill.

“These schools do not have the same standards as public schools do, especially when it comes to the LGBTQ community,” Crow said.

He said last year he and some interns looked for every private school policy in Iowa they could find. They found about 90 percent of them and of that 90 percent, 45 percent had policies that he states explicitly discriminates against LGBTQ.

A parent of two daughters in high school spoke about their experience with private education and appreciate for STOs and CTOs (Catholic Tuition Organizations). He said 31 studies in the last 10 years show the public schools benefit as well as nonpublic schools when choice is strengthened.

Phil Jeneary of the Iowa Association of School Boards spoke against the bill, saying the group is very opposed. He stressed cooperation between the public and private schools as well.

“I think that trying to pit public versus private is not the way to do it,” he said.

Jeneary said there’s already plenty of school choice in Iowa.

Scott Jensen spoke in support. He played a role in Wisconsin when that state put forth the first private school choice program in 1990. This bill, which would allow students to keep unused money in an education savings grant upon graduation from high school would allow that to extend past serving on federal active duty in the military.

Many others spoke for and against the bill. There were more speakers against the bill, but for many of the same reasons already mentioned.

Sen. Celsi said she is an insider, having spent 12 years in private school and then serving three years on a board of education in the largest Catholic high school in Iowa. She said she was on the board at the time discussion about STOs was beginning.

“Guess what, it’s a growth strategy,” she said. “They did not have the resources so they decided to go after public dollars.”

Sen. Zaun said the bill isn’t about public versus private.

“There’s great public schools,” he said. “What this is about is empowering parents where they don’t have to send their kids based on (their) zip code.”

Zaun said the bill isn’t about vouchers, either. The bill is about ESAs, he said, and encourages parents to shop for what works best for their individual child. He also said he would be willing to share studies that show school choice helps improve both public and private schools — something Celsi said was not conclusive in any study.

Financial resources make viability of the bill questionable, but Zaun suggested starting with special ed and kindergarten students.

Behn said he was first elected in 1996 and served his first session in 1997. Back then they worked on education reform as Gov. Terry Branstad was preparing to leave office. But Behn said they left the most important thing out — competition and involvement of parents.

Back then Behn was told the top factor in determining how well a student performed was how involved their parents were.

“They all laughed,” Behn said. “They said ‘well, you can’t legislate parental involvement.'”

The second biggest factor was addressed — quality of teachers. The legislature has worked on that for years with program after program.

“We skipped over what involves parents,” Behn said. “Let’s go back to what does involve parents. Every single study I’ve seen says parental choice involves a parent. It’s the quickest, most direct involvement we can entertain.”

The bill has been a passion for Behn.

“I do believe that parental involvement is the key,” he said. “That’s what this really introduces.”

Behn referred to the courts, which have said monopoly power can harm society by making output lower, prices higher and innovation less than would be in a competitive market.

“There is nowhere with over 90 percent of a market is not considered a monopoly,” Behn said. “You may be right Sen. Zaun, maybe we can’t do it all, but it’s also my experience that you better start by asking for as high as you possibly can.”

Sen. Celsi took exception to the idea that schools should have competition.

“I just think that’s ridiculous,” Celsi said. “Schools are not businesses, they do not compete with one another. They are busy enough taking care of kids in their own building and trying to meet their own benchmarks than to worry about what’s going on across town. I just think that’s a non-thing.”