Iowa Press on Iowa Public Television always gives the Iowa legislative leaders an opportunity to share their intentions for the upcoming legislative session. The Friday, Jan. 8 show was no exception. Guests were the Speaker of the House, Pat Grassley, and the Senate Majority Leader Jack Whitver. I paid special attention to the topic of education because, living in rural Iowa in a small town, I know how important the community school is to the health of the community as a whole.
Kay Henderson of Radio Iowa asked whether the two state leaders would be in favor of giving parents state subsidies or tuition assistance so they could attend private schools. Both Speaker Grassley and Senator Whitver replied with the same affirmation, “Everything is on the table.” Whitver further noted the following, “Education is going to probably be the biggest conversation in this session.” This indicates, based on legislation from recent years, that vouchers or educational savings accounts are again being seriously considered by the Republican leadership.
Most notable, neither elected official even mentioned the words “public schools” nor did they express their pride in the good work that our public school teachers and administrators do every day, especially given the difficult conditions of a pandemic.
At the Condition of the State speech on Tuesday evening, Jan. 12, Governor Reynolds also called for state financial support to parents who choose alternatives to their local public schools in the form of educational savings accounts. She heavily criticized school districts for not listening to parents about their desires for their children’s education to be “100”% in the classroom” during the COVID-19 pandemic. In doing so, Reynolds ignores the principle of local control that has for decades empowered the locally elected school boards, which are accountable to the patrons of the district, to set policy. School boards must adhere to the open meetings laws that give the public access to express their opinions at the school board meetings, further increasing accountability. Instead the governor is calling on the legislature to give her the power to micromanage school district decisions on attendance policies during a time of a serious threat to the health of students, teachers and other school personnel.
I have grave concerns that financial assistance to parents for private schooling could be a serious disruption in financing of public education. Several issues stand out.
First of all, I do not believe that the state of Iowa can financially support two different education systems — one public and one private. The money is not there, especially as the Republicans plan to continue to lower property taxes. Any money given for “parental choice” is money that will be taken away from public schools. There is talk of giving parents a sum of money that they can use for private school tuition or even homeschooling — ESAs — called educational savings accounts or by the common term of school vouchers. My question is how will the public school budget be impacted if parents pocket money that should be directed to public schools. Although every parent has already been given the right by Iowa law to select the best educational option for their child, public, private or home, parents do not have the right to expect the tax payers to pay them if they do not want to use the public schools provided by their school district.
Second, private schools are not accountable to the state of Iowa in the same way that public schools are. The mandates for all public schools that come from the Department of Education do not apply equally to private schools, much less to home schooling. There are different accountability standards for standardized testing, public reporting and required offerings. Private schools have the ability to admit (or not admit) any student. Previously proposed legislation has prohibited the Iowa Department of Education from proposing any laws that create “an undue burden on private schools or on homeschoolers.” In other words, tax money is committed without expecting accountability or transparency.
Iowa does not need education savings grants. Iowa has a fine public school system that needs to be supported fully by the patrons of the community school districts in Iowa. Iowa also has generous allowances for parents to select educational alternatives to public schools if they wish. Rural school districts, small and medium-sized towns are all advised to look carefully at the unintended consequences of taking money away from public schools in their towns in upcoming legislation for education savings accounts. Small school districts are already financially stressed. We know how important the public schools are to our communities. The state government should be making them financially stronger. Watch for the bill in the legislature in the next week or two, but before that, contact Senator Chapman or Representative Sorensen.