School vouchers make first Iowa legislative appearance of 2018

Randy Richardson is a former teacher and retired associate executive director of the Iowa State Education Association. -promoted by desmoinesdem

The first of what will likely be multiple “school choice” bills appeared last week when Republican State Senator Mark Chelgren introduced Senate File 2091. The bill creates Education Savings Grants, which would be available to certain students attending non-public schools or who are receiving competent private instruction (CPI). Parents or guardians could apply for the grants if:

1. the pupil is eligible to enroll in kindergarten, or
2. is eligible to enroll in grade 1 through grade 12 and has attended a public school for the equivalent of the two immediately preceding semesters, or
3. the pupil received an education savings grant for the immediately preceding school budget year

In other words, only incoming kindergarten students and public school students who wish to transfer to a private school or receive CPI will be eligible for these grants in year one. The grants, which some estimate to be about $4,000 each, would be processed by the Department of Education and issued by the Department of Management. However, the bill also authorizes the Department of Education to contract with a private management firm (that would charge an unknown fee) to manage the funds in the program and to create a plan to disburse the funds in the form of an electronic debit card or checks payable directly from the fund.

At this writing, no fiscal note has been attached to Chelgren’s bill, but it is possible to get a fairly good estimate of the costs associated with this legislation. According to the most recent enrollment data provided by the Department of Education for non-public schools, there were approximately 3,800 children enrolled in private pre-schools in the state. Private school kindergarten enrollment for that same year was approximately 3,200 students. Conservatively we’ll guess that 3,500 new kindergarten students will enroll in private schools next year. Each of those students would be eligible for an education savings grant.

Although the state doesn’t currently track the number of students receiving competent private instruction, we do know that in 2015 there were roughly 6,800 home schooled students in the state. We don’t know grade level for these children, but if we assume they are equally divided by grade level, then we can assume that about 520 students are at each grade level and that an equal number will begin at the kindergarten level in the next year. That means we’re looking at somewhere around 4,020 (3,500 plus 520) new students starting kindergarten in private schools and in CPI. Using these numbers we could guess that the first year cost for Senate File 2091 will be $16,080,000.

In the general scheme of state budgets, $16 million doesn’t sound like a lot. But wait…this is only the cost for year one. Every year a new group of students enter schools and they become eligible for grants. As noted above, the students already receiving the grants get to keep their grant. So the number doubles in year two and so on and so on until every one of the 36,000 plus private school students and the 6,800 students receiving CPI become eligible to receive these grants. When that happens, the price tag for the bill becomes astronomical at a total of $171 million per year.

The bill also allows students receiving the grant to use surplus funds to offset the cost of higher education. Students could do this until they reached the maximum age for eligibility (23 or, if they served in the military, age 27). It’s ironic that under this bill state government would be using public dollars to pay for the continuing education of private school students while providing no such incentive to a single public school student.

At a time when Governor Kim Reynolds believes the best she can do for the 481,000 K-12 public school students is adding a paltry $54 million to next year’s budget, this hardly seems fair or appropriate. Iowans need to clearly indicate that they prefer to fund Iowa’s public schools at an adequate level and end the escalation of funding for private and home school providers in our state.

The non-partisan, grass roots organization Parents for Great Iowa Schools and the Iowa Association of School Boards are organizing a lobbying day for public school supporters on Tuesday, January 30. Tickets covering the training and lunch cost $15 and are available here. Agenda:

9:00 Botanical Center-Welcome, Budget and Issue Update
10:00-10:30 Governor Reynolds
10:30 Training on how to talk to legislators
12:00 Lunch(your registration fee covers lunch)
12:45 Board buses to Capitol
4:00 Buses leave Capitol to return to Botanical Garden

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