According to the news, the biggest issue holding up the conclusion of this session is the Student First Scholarship program proposal. This legislation is included in Division 2 of SF 2369. These scholarships can also be called educational savings accounts or school vouchers, depending on whether you are for or against the idea. Right now, there doesn’t appear to be sufficient support for the program in the House and I admit to be part of the “problem,” as some have claimed. I have also been called embarrassing and ignorant by proponents because of my position.
I can’t vote for the proposed legislation for a number of reasons:
- Supposedly, Iowa families don’t currently have school choice; however, nearly 10% of students in House District 64 utilize open enrollment to choose a different school. There are also private school options and homeschooling. And just last year, the Legislature passed new public charter school legislation and further eliminated hurdles to open enrollment.
- The scholarships are limited to current public school students or incoming kindergarteners. I believe parents of private school students are being misled that their children would qualify. A student would have to be enrolled in public school for at least two semesters to be eligible.
- Proponents say the scholarships are needed for families who can’t afford private school, however, a student from a family of four making over $100,000 would be eligible, while the median Iowa household income is about $62,000.
- Unused funds in a student’s scholarship account can accumulate over time. Advocates say this program would be no different than the state providing Iowa Tuition Grants for college students attending private Iowa colleges. However, unused tuition grant funds don’t accumulate for use in another year.
- I have been told that the state will spend less providing scholarships for these 10,000 students than it would to educate them in public school. However, the way I read the legislation, there is no tax savings to the taxpayer. Funds above the scholarship level that would have normally been allocated to the local school district are appropriated to a fund to increase the operational sharing funds for school districts. These operational sharing funds are used primarily by rural districts to share administrators, business officials and department heads.
- And finally, to fund the program the state continues to count the students as if they were still in the public school system and the taxpayer continues to pay. Currently, if a parent chooses private school or homeschooling for their child that student isn’t counted and the taxpayers aren’t charged for their education.
Advocates for the scholarship program say I am against school choice. I am not, I just believe there are other, better alternatives:
- Increase the tuition and textbook tax credit for all families by raising it to a comparable level of funding proposed in SF 2369. This could be quite costly to state revenue, so provide a scaled-up credit so that families that have a greater need get to keep a higher percentage of their taxes through the credit. For the lowest-income families, make the credit refundable.
- Increase the school tuition organization tax credit to 100% for individuals that donate to a school tuition organization and reduce the inequities between school tuition organizations.
- Provide startup funding grants for public charter schools in targeted parts of the state that are deemed to be areas of concern (i.e. Des Moines). Allow them to really innovate.
- Put public and private schools on a level playing field by allowing public schools to operate with more flexibility.
- Direct an Iowa School Reform Task Force to utilize the scores in the Iowa School Performance Profile (https://www.iaschoolperformance.gov) reports to compare and contrast the best performing schools with the poorest performing schools and report the findings to the Legislature. Use any recommendations from the report to design changes in curriculum delivery for all schools.
- If we really believe we are failing our students, use the Republican trifecta to review every piece of Iowa code related to PK-12 education and implement meaningful education reforms that remake Iowa’s public education with a focus on improved academic outcomes for every student. Don’t encourage some parents to go find a private school option and give up on the rest of the kids that are left behind.
I have heard from passionate people on both sides of the school choice issue, but right now, I don’t believe that the currently proposed legislation is the fix-all that some claim. Nor do I believe that Iowa’s taxpayers should foot the bill if parents use their right to opt out of the “free” public education offering.