Iowa losing its way on our public schools

Randy Evans: Iowa’s foundation in education is being tested as surely as if an EF5 tornado were bearing down on every public-school building. 

This is one of those times when people who have little appetite for politics need to pay attention — because a big change is coming that many folks won’t agree with. 

When the U.S. Mint asked each state to pick an image to represent the state on a series of special quarters in 2004, Iowa chose its schools. The quarter featured a likeness of Grant Wood’s famous painting of a one-room country school, with the message “Foundation in Education.”  

The choice was not surprising. Our schools have been something in which Iowans have long taken great pride. Our chests swelled each time Iowa stood atop the nation’s college entrance exam rankings. Terry Branstad and Kim Reynolds even campaigned for office in 2010 on a promise to bring Iowa’s schools up to world-class stature. 

That was then. This year, Iowa’s foundation in education is being tested as surely as if an EF5 tornado were bearing down on every public-school building. 

Republican leaders in the Iowa Senate, encouraged by Reynolds, have put the state on a financially harmful path for public schools. The only thing standing in their way is whether enough Republicans in the state House have the political courage in the coming days to say, “No. Absolutely not.” 

This is where individual taxpayers can make a difference — but they need to write letters or send emails this week to their state representatives, asking them to oppose the Republican proposal to use $55 million in state tax money for scholarships for 10,000 children to attend private K-12 schools.  

That $55 million would come directly from the state’s public-school districts themselves, about $5,500 for each student who receives a scholarship. 

Taxpayers need to make it clear to House lawmakers that state tax money should be used only for our public schools, not for private schools — especially since private schools are not subject to the same citizen accountability and oversight requirements that public-school districts must live with.

The governor and Senate Republicans like to talk about the fairness of allowing any student to attend a private school. But the voucher proposal does not give all students an equal opportunity for a private-school education. Forty-two of Iowa’s 99 counties do not have a private school within their boundaries, and the scholarship money cannot be used for transportation costs. 

Also, private schools are not required to accept every student who wants to enroll — unlike the public schools. Private schools can pick and choose which students they admit. Students can be turned away based on their religion, their sexual orientation or gender identity, their ability to speak English, the presence of intellectual disabilities, or because of behavior problems a student may have.

Senate Democratic Leader Zach Wahls said during the recent debate over vouchers, “Why on Earth would we give private schools our taxpayer dollars when they don’t have the commitment or the responsibility of educating all Iowa students?”

He added, “If you are watching at home and you are one of the 92 percent of Iowa families whose children are in the public education system, there is no doubt the quality of your child’s education will suffer if this bill becomes law.”

Wahls said, “All it takes is for four or five students in your entire school system to take a voucher, and now your child has lost a teacher. And it is not difficult to understand the death spiral that this bill will create. Once a school district starts losing students, it starts losing teachers. And once a school district starts losing teachers, it starts losing schools.” 

Diverting tax money to pay for services that everyone cannot use is a concept contrary to the philosophy behind government. With government, everyone pitches in to help pay for facilities and services that are available for all. 

We would howl in protest if the legislature proposed handing state tax money to a private group to build a swimming pool or a golf course that only the group’s members could use. Likewise, we would rise in opposition if a lawmaker proposed that certain people could divert a portion of their state income taxes or local property taxes to pay for a private security service to provide protection at their home.

But that’s just what these scholarships do. They let some Iowans divert state tax money for their own private benefit.

If House Republicans go along with their Senate colleagues and approve the scholarships, don’t think for a minute that only $55 million and 10,000 scholarships are at stake.

There already are about 46,000 students in private schools in Iowa. It’s a sure bet many of their parents, if not most, will want the scholarship program expanded in the coming years so they do not have to write tuition checks while some students receive taxpayer vouchers to pay for their tuition.

The Iowa Association of School Boards pointed out that Ohio began a voucher program in 2005 with 3,000 students. Today, Ohio provides 69,000 vouchers that cost the state's taxpayers $628 million a year.

Don’t let the politicians fool you into thinking this is a program to help children from low-income families. While poor kids would be eligible, so would the children in a family of four whose household income is $110,000.  

Parents who are dissatisfied with the quality of education their children receive in the local school district already have an important option available: They can open-enroll their child into another public-school district at no cost.

The private-school voucher proposal is just one roll call vote away from becoming law. This is why it is important for Iowans to stand up and tell their state representatives that public tax money must not be diverted into private schools.

Randy Evans can be reached at DMRevans2810@gmail.com. In addition to writing a regular column, he is the executive director of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council.

Top photo of Davis County Elementary School first published on the school's website.

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