Iowans deserve better than "school choice"

Below are the edited remarks Nick Covington made in Des Moines at the Public Funds for Public Schools press conference, organized by Progress Iowa on November 2.

My name is Nick Covington. I taught social studies at Ankeny High School from 2012 to June of this year. As a teacher, I saw first-hand that most Iowans, including teachers and parents, want the same thing: strong, quality public schools that give every student the freedom to reach their full potential. All students, no matter what they look like or their zip code, deserve the freedom to learn and succeed. 

Governor Kim Reynolds’ website currently reads: “School choice allows public education funds to follow students to the schools or services that meet their needs—and allows parents to choose what’s best for their children, whether that’s a different public school, a private or charter school, home school or other learning environment.”

And it is true that we already have a robust open enrollment system for public schools in Iowa. According to a report from the Iowa Department of Education, only about 7 percent of public school students were open-enrolled outside their home district for the 2019-2020 school year. That’s 93 percent of public school children in Iowa attending their neighborhood school district.

Given the choice to open enroll, the vast majority of Iowa parents choose their neighborhood schools. And I agree with Reynolds when she boasted that same year, in January 2020, about the successes of Iowa public schools, saying, “We have strong local control, rooted in communities and parents who care deeply about educating their children. We have the highest high-school graduation rate in the country and more high schoolers taking college courses than any other state.“

Vouchers are another policy tool framed as providing “school choice” to families and students, but school choice really means nonpublic schools get to make the choice about what students they serve, all while receiving public dollars to discriminate based on religion, gender and sexual identity, disability, and other protected statuses under Iowa civil rights code. So when we talk about school choice under a voucher plan, we need to ask about choice for whom? 

Does that voucher spend the same for LGBTQ students and their families? Or for students with disabilities? And where does that voucher money go once it gets spent? Let’s investigate:

One Iowa’s Director of Policy and Advocacy explained to me earlier this year, “Since we don’t treat these organizations similarly under the law, any discussion about choice is at best a misunderstanding and at worst an intentional misrepresentation.”

When One Iowa went through every non-public school policy they could find in the state, 75 percent indicated, either explicitly or implicitly they would be willing to discriminate against LGBTQ families, only 15 percent stated affirmatively that they would not. Any talk of competition between nonpublic and public institutions isn’t a competition at all because we’re not talking about institutions playing by the same set of rules. Any talk of choice then, they explained, is “totally dishonest.”

Nonpublic schools have every right under Iowa law to teach in accordance to their religious principles, but nothing should obligate taxpayers to financially support institutions that permit discrimination. 

It’s more complicated when it comes to students with disabilities and those in need of accommodations to be successful in school, as public and nonpublic institutions are required to provide public accommodations under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

However, nonpublic schools that do not accept federal funding are not required to provide special education services under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. In fact, as the parent of a child with an Individualized Education Plan, or IEP, I called a local private school on Monday to see how they would accommodate my child with special needs. I was told that they review it on a case by case basis because “We don’t have special education services here.”

If you attend a nonpublic school that does not accept federal funds, any special education evaluation will be paid for by the public school district where you live. Further, if your child qualifies for an IEP while attending a nonpublic school, “equitable services” may be provided out of a limited amount of public funding set aside for such purposes. 

Let me be clear, no voucher will cover the out of pocket cost incurred by parents for acquiring private special education services for their kids.

Further, what evidence do we have that a private market will emerge to serve children with the greatest physical, social, emotional, and cognitive needs, with the assumption that it will also be cheaper and more accessible? 

While Iowans agree that taxpayer money should be spent on providing educational services, the competition that “school choice” programs are meant to engender also diverts millions of dollars away from educational programs toward marketing. In addition to providing payouts to marketeers and staffing salespeople, where private & charter programs expand to take advantage of taxpayer vouchers, in the absence of transparency, grift and fraud inevitably follow. 

In 2017, investigative reporters in Pennsylvania learned that twelve of Pennsylvania’s cyber charter schools spent more than $21 million combined in taxpayer dollars promoting their schools over a three-year period. One school spent nearly $11 million alone. 

A similar report from Utah in 2019 found that charter schools spent a combined $2.1 million on marketing and advertising, and suggested that some schools spending the most money on ads performed among the worst. One charter school that spent $819,000 on marketing to persuade would-be parents, had received an received an F from the state in 2016.

And in the most recent high-profile incident of charter fraud, earlier this year in Oklahoma, the co-founders of Epic Charter Schools were charged with felony racketeering and embezzlement, among other charges, related to their public virtual charter school system: “Investigators allege the Epic Charter School co-founders cost taxpayers $22 million by engineering a ‘complicated criminal enterprise’ through their management of charter schools”, spending Learning Fund dollars on their personal credit cards and diverting money toward political contributions to influence state education policy to further line their pockets. The Oklahoma State Auditor called it “the largest abuse of taxpayer funds in the history of the state.”

Iowans deserve better, and we have better, than an education system cluttered with discrimination, misinformation, waste, fraud, and abuse of taxpayer money in the guise of “school choice”. If we have enough money to fund a two-tier public and private education system, we should invest it into improving accessibility and equity, and expanding school programming to guarantee the right of every Iowa child to a free, appropriate, and excellent public education.

Thank you.

Nick Covington taught social studies at Ankeny High School from 2012 to 2022 and became the full-time Creative Director of the Human Restoration Project when his teaching contract ended on June 1. You can follow Nick on Twitter @CovingtonEDU.

Top image: Screenshot from Nick Covington’s remarks at a November 2 press conference.

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Nick Covington