There is little doubt, coupons have helped build America consumerism. For some, if there isn’t a coupon, there isn’t a bargain. There is nothing wrong with that approach to shopping. In fact, it has become a hobby for some and even spawned reality TV shows. It’s a choice, and the shopper’s choice alone. It’s really a contract between the shopper and the store.
Now comes the Republican Party with their own coupon offering, but this one has big catch. The coupon is not free in the newspaper or on the internet. It’s paid for by tax dollars. It’s a voucher plan the Republican Party has labeled as an Education Savings Accounts. But don’t be fooled, they can call it anything they like, it’s still a coupon for private tuition paid for by Iowa taxpayers.
Let’s be clear. There is nothing inherently wrong with private schools. Many provide a quality education. It’s an option, and many parents choose that option for good reason. There is, however, something inherently wrong with publicly elected officials choosing to use public funds on private entities with no accountability for the use of those dollars.
The difference between the shopper who uses a coupon to get a discount at a store and a voucher plan is the shopper uses his/her own money. In a voucher scheme, the private school wants the government to pay for the coupon so the consumer can get a discount all in the name of more choice creating more quality.
The mantra of private school advocates has always been, “We need competition so both the public school and the private school improve.” After all, competition is the American way. It is how capitalism was built. But wait, don’t the competitors need to play by the same rules? Doesn’t there have to be equal accountability? Personally, it doesn’t take me long to start screaming at the TV when the referee makes an unfair call. It happens in sports with referees, what if there were no referees?
In the so-called competition between private and public schools, there really is no accountability and very few governmental rules for private schools. The schools are private for a reason. The founders of these schools wanted to establish their own rules free of government interference. Again, there may not be anything wrong with that, until the private school begins asking taxpayers to pay, even though it doesn’t plan to change the rules. For example, public schools welcome all students including those with language deficiency, those who are gifted, those with physical disabilities, those who are behavior challenges, those who are great athletes, those who will never play, those who are hungry and those who are well fed. In short, anyone who shows up at the doorstep is educated in the best way possible.
The private school can politely, or frankly, not so politely say, “No thank you. Student, you don’t fit our criteria or even our image. We make the rules, and if you don’t follow those rules, go enroll in the public school.”
There is no accountability, nor is there a fair competition because there isn’t supposed to be competition. Constituents of the private school spend their own money to be allowed to make their own rules. The old saying applies, “He that pays the piper calls the tune.” hat rings true, only until government pays for select children to attend private school.
Unfair competition is not the only problem with coupons for private education. The second huge problem is the cost. The estimated startup cost for this entitlement will be in the neighborhood of $214 million. Iowa has underfunded public schools for the last five years, and this year will probably not break that trend. By underfunding, I mean pubic schools have been provided an increase of less than the cost of living.
Republicans have two arguments regarding their chronic underfunding. They are quick to point out, 43 percent of the state budget is allocated to public schools. That is true, because for decades public education in Iowa was considered a bipartisan investment. It is also true because every public school is dependent on state funding because of the funding formula. In the recent past, even the most conservative lawmakers from both sides of the aisle realized Iowa’s greatest asset was the public education system. That has changed. Now, it appears many Republican lawmakers are influenced more by the Koch brothers and ALEC than they are their children and grandchildren. If that sounds like an indictment, it is.
The second Republican argument is the earmarked public education allocation that was initiated by Governor Terry Branstad in 2013. That earmarked initiative was called Teacher Leader Compensation (TLC). It did provide $150 million additional dollars for public schools, but schools could not spend the money as general fund money. Instead, it was specifically allocated to create “Teacher coaches” to improve classroom instruction. These “Teacher coaches” in many cases are some of the best and the brightest, but they are no longer directly teaching kids. Instead, they are mentoring other teachers. This program did nothing to control class size, nor did it provide the locally controlled funding for public schools to keep the lights on.
This may continue to be a very positive program, but it does not help the public school funding crisis because it is earmarked for one program instead of locally controlled. Ironically in 2014, the first year of implementation, the Sioux City School District was forced to reduce staff, causing class size numbers to increase at the same time the district was allowed to hire 40 “Teacher coaches.” This is like giving a poor family money and telling them they may only buy a Jaguar instead of food. A Jaguar is nice. Food is essential.
The next time you hear a Republican politician say they support education, be sure to ask how they specifically support public education in Iowa or do they favor a coupon approach where you as a taxpayer are left paying so your neighbors’ kids have a coupon to attend private school.
Bruce Lear, lives in Sioux City and recently retired after 38 years of being connected to public schools. He was a teacher for 11 years, and a regional director for 27 years for the Iowa State Education Association.