Each year there are two or three bills that define the session and have large numbers of supporters and many who oppose the bill. These few bills each year are the ones that guide the direction of Iowa as a state and set our course into the future. Education is one of the most important issues we deal with each year. SF 159 is going to be one of the bills that will impact our future as a state in general, and those parents specifically, who feel trapped and given a way to help their child succeed in school.
SF 159 is a limited school choice bill that offers many changes to Iowa’s school system. All of these changes share the common goal of giving more power to the parent in making decisions impacting their child’s education. The first order of business is to identify the schools that are having the hardest time educating their students to Iowa standards. There are currently 34 buildings, not even school districts, but individual elementary schools, middle schools, and high schools within districts that are not meeting these standards. This bill lets parents choose to move their child to another school, and provides a scholarship fund their move to the school of their choice. This is a first in Iowa. Parents should not be denied the opportunity to take their child to a better school if their public school cannot meet their needs. This portion of the bill only affects parents with children in those schools identified as being in the lowest 5% of schools in Iowa based on performance.
The second major portion of the bill opens up Iowa’s charter school law in order to foster innovation and relieve regulatory burdens that stifle this innovation. The bill makes clear public schools can open a charter school or a third party can open the school. This will allow our public schools to be flexible and gives them tools to compete as we give more parents a choice where their child goes to school.
The bill also addresses the policy of some schools denying open enrollment to parents due to voluntary diversity plans that trap children in a school that does not meet their needs. Additionally, we also address school choice by increasing the Tuition and Textbook Tax Credit, allowing homeschool families to access this credit for curriculum, and creating a new deduction for teachers for their classroom expenses.
This bill is important to Iowa’s future for the same reason it is controversial to some. For the first time the state is going to have the dollars follow the student to the school of their choice instead of the student following the money based on their zip code. Even though the bill will immediately impact the students in select buildings in a few districts, I think this new approach will succeed for the students. I also think the schools involved will not be harmed, and may even begin to improve. That is exactly the point of the bill, and the motivation for the governor to bring this bill to us.
For years there have been lawmakers in each chamber that have worked for statewide parental choice in K-12 education. I’ve am not on the Education Committee but have encouraged them to develop ideas that remove regulation and add parental control. Our schools in western Iowa are generally high scoring and well supported by the parents. But our largest schools in the cities are not doing as well. Without innovation and competition to make these city schools better, I fear Iowa will decline as a leader in education. Without choice introduced for parents, administrators and school boards will continue to talk down to parents, their customers, without fear of losing students.
As you can see, SF 159 isn’t a danger to our successful public schools. It offers a small number of parents and students a way out of low-performing schools. It offers public schools an option to be innovative, reimburses teachers for supplies, helps homeschool families with books and supplies, and stops big city schools from holding onto to families who want to open enroll out to a different public school. If anything, this bill doesn’t go far enough.