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Week 2 in the Iowa House was shorter than most, with the Martin Luther King, Jr holiday and a snowstorm that sent many legislators home early if they didn’t have committee meetings scheduled for Thursday. Most committees had their second meeting of the session, unless they were canceled for a lack of business to complete; and several subcommittees met to begin moving individual bills through the legislative process.

A bill must pass a subcommittee of three legislators to be considered by the full committee. When a subcommittee meets to discuss a bill it is more like an open conversation about the pros and cons of the proposed legislation. This is the time when the public can have direct input and time to publicly comment on a bill. In the past, I have learned this is a great time to get ideas for how to amend the bill to make it better or more acceptable to other legislators. Subcommittee meetings are very informal and can last just a couple of minutes if there is not much comment, or up to 30 minutes or more for longer or controversial bills.

So far this session, 75 study bills have been filed in the House, primarily by committee chairs or state government agencies, with an additional 79 bills sponsored by individual or multiple representatives. Even with the filing of over 150 bills in the first two weeks, most of the energy at the Capitol has been consumed by what is now HF 68, the governor’s education savings account program proposal.

I’m sure most have heard about the proposal to provide for education savings accounts (ESA) for, eventually, all students that attend an accredited nonpublic/private school in Iowa. The annual value of each student’s ESA would be approximately $7600. Families would need to apply annually to the Iowa Department of Education or the designated third party vendor. Similar proposals have been made the past two years, however, the current ESA proposal is far grander in scale and cost.

I have been opposed to the previous proposals, and here’s 5 reasons why I still can’t vote to approve this current proposal. FYI – The debate and vote on the bill is expected to happen in the Iowa House very early next week, and it may be all over by the time you read this in the newspaper.

  1. Taxpayers losing accountability. As Republicans, we are always cognizant that the taxpayer is funding everything we do in government and with that understanding we believe the taxpayer has the right to know how their funds are being used. Public schools have many reporting requirements to assure that funds are being used in the taxpayers’ best interest. If an individual taxpayer wants to read the annual audit, they can. If they want to dig into many other reports, those reports are available locally or on the Department of Education’s website. Does that create a lot of work for administrators? Yes, but the public is paying the bill, so that information should be available. I am not confident that information will be available from private schools. The bill actually states that “rules adopted by the department of education to implement this section that impose an undue burden on a nonpublic school are invalid.” Ask public school administrators and teachers about DE rules, they can be burdensome.
  2. Creating new funding inequities between public schools. A provision of the bill provides some funding, currently projected to be about $1200, to public schools for each private school student receiving an ESA that lives in the public school district. On the surface, this seems like a nice way to cushion the financial loss if a student moves from the public school to a private school. No such cushion exists if a student open-enrolls to another public school. Additionally, and what really doesn’t make sense to me, is that for every student that receives an ESA, even if that student never went to public school, the public school will receive that $1200 annually. This could amount to about a total of $40 million that some public schools (primarily urban districts) will but others will not if there are not currently private schools in their area.
  3. School choice is already available. I have referenced this in the past, but Iowa has as many or more choices available for parents than any other state with public school, open enrollment, private school, charter school, home school, dual enrollment and now, increasing online school options. Public schools were created to educate everyone, regardless of their means, for the public good. Schools are paid for by everyone in the school district that pays taxes, not just the parents. We now have easy options for parents to opt out of that system. Even in the middle of the school year, open enrollment to a neighboring school, charter school, or online school is available.
  4. Encouraging use of one-time funds for ongoing expenses. In a way to sweeten the proposal a bit, the legislation includes the opportunity for public schools to utilize unused categorical, or specialized, funds for ongoing teacher salaries. At the Capitol it has been said over and over again we shouldn’t use one-time money to fund ongoing expenses. That is part of the proposal would encourage schools to use this exact strategy in the future.
  5. Failing to focus on closing the achievement gap. The department of education publishes the Iowa School Performance Profiles report annually. This report shows the wide range in student achievement between schools. Since I have been in the Legislature, there has been zero conversation about how we can address the performance gaps between schools. If the $40 million for the public school portion of this proposal was targeted to implement innovative ways to improve student achievement in the lower performing schools, I think we could make a big difference.
  6. Oops, I have a sixth reason. The ESA program is estimated to cost about $300 million per year by year four. However, there are currently thousands of cognitively and physically disabled kids, teenagers and adults that are approved for services to help improve their lives and the lives of their families, but they are stuck on waiting lists because funding is not appropriated for those programs. Supporting these individuals through community supportive living programs, job training and other programs that improve their quality of life and their ability to be productive community members is the right thing to do. And probably more important in the short term than creating a publicly-funded private school system.

Author: Chad Ingels



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