Using Republican logic on their school voucher plan

“Strong Island Hawk” is an Iowa Democrat and political researcher based in Des Moines. Prior to moving to Iowa, he lived in Washington, DC where he worked for one of the nation’s top public interest groups. In Iowa, he has worked and volunteered on U.S. Representative Cindy Axne’s 2018 campaign and Senator Elizabeth Warren’s 2020 caucus team. 

I love a good argument. Maybe that’s because I hail from a family of lawyers and big talkers, all of whom very much like to argue. In any event, I love crafting a solid case for my position. Even more than that, I love to break down and pick apart weak arguments.

Over the past month, Governor Kim Reynolds’ private school funding plan has come under scrutiny from Democrats and Republicans alike—for good reason. I somewhat empathize with what Reynolds advocated. I transferred high schools, and it was certainly good to have the option—although for me, the better choice was transferring back to public school.

On the flip side, my girlfriend transferred out of an Iowa public high school after her freshman year and graduated from a Catholic school, which worked out very well for her. So, I understand the need for flexibility when it comes to school choice. We were both lucky enough to come from families who could afford it.

However, the Reynolds plan is not the way to help kids have a positive educational experience.

I couldn’t help but notice how the debate over private school funding oddly resembled the debate on another education topic: the Biden administration’s student loan debt forgiveness policy. I’m against the Reynolds plan for a number of reasons. But I was struck by the notion that we could make the same bad faith arguments that conservatives made about student loans.

So, in the interest of playing devil’s advocate, I would like to apply that same logic to the private school debate.

To be fair: I don’t think these were good or worthwhile arguments. Nor do I think they were they made in good faith. So this is simply a rhetorical exercise. In fact, I broke down the liberal and conservative cases on loan forgiveness in a Bleeding Heartland post last September.

“It favors the wealthy”

For two years, Reynolds’ plan allows for students from families below a certain income level to qualify for the school voucher. The second year, that pool of eligibility expands to include more middle-income families. But after 2026, all students in Iowa will be eligible for an education savings account, regardless of household income levels.

It strikes me as deeply irresponsible for this plan, which will cost hundreds of millions of dollars each year, to have no means testing after two years. Republicans tried to sell the public on “school choice” by claiming it would allow low-income students to find a school where they can thrive. OK, fine. Just do that. Why take away the income limits?

Last Sunday, Dave Price’s interviewed Reynolds on the last edition of WHO-TV’s “The Insiders.” When he asked about doing away with the means testing, the governor didn’t seem to have a good answer.

Basically, this means a Principal or Wells Fargo executive making hundreds of thousands of dollars a year, will now get a $7,598 taxpayer-funded discount every year to send each kid to Dowling Catholic or Des Moines Christian, where tuition is approximately $10,000 a year. Before long, this plan will mutate into a system in which the state covers private school tuition for everyone.

Conservatives pretended every student loan borrower was a wealthy Princeton graduate with an MBA from Stanford. These same people aren’t complaining that Iowa taxpayers will cover private school tuition for well-off families.

Paying private school costs, year after year, for wealthy families who can easily afford it is wasteful and pointless. (By the way, Biden’s student loan debt relief is a one-time plan, with income limits.)

“It’s unfair to those who have already paid”

Curiously, I don’t hear conservatives whining that the school voucher plan is unfair to Iowans who have already put their kids through private school.

Republicans including Reynolds trotted out that line again and again during the student loan controversy, claiming that forgiving borrowers’ debt is unfair for people who already saved for their education or paid off their loans. They get nothing for their hard work now and thus are getting screwed.

Weak as it is, that same logic holds here. If the state starts paying private school tuition this year, isn’t it unfair to Iowans who have already saved for those costs, or paid off education debt for kids who are now grown? Shouldn’t people whose children graduated in the past be upset they will miss out on this benefit?

I always thought this was the least compelling of the bad faith arguments against student loan forgiveness. But you can certainly use it in the voucher debate.

“Why should I have to pay for someone else’s education?”

As with the student debt discussion, one can argue taxpayers shouldn’t be stuck with the bill for parents who think their local public school isn’t good enough. (Let’s be honest, that’s why many parents send their kids to private schools.)

During the student loan debate, Republicans complained that it was unfair for truck drivers, construction workers, and so on to pay the loans of college graduates. Can’t the same be said here? Why should working-class taxpayers pay for the public school system and also be asked to pay for someone’s private school education?

Won’t removing that money from the public school system harm it in the long run? And shouldn’t those parents work hard and be responsible and save for their children’s education? (This line of thinking also seemed flawed to me, but nonetheless…)

“It costs too much”

Many Republicans castigated Biden’s student loan forgiveness plan came due to its a hefty price tag, approximately $500 billion. They claimed we simply didn’t have the money.

However, student debt forgiveness comes with potentially huge economic benefits: it relieves young people of onerous debt burdens and frees up money for them to spend in the economy or save for the future. For example, forgiving $10,000 of a young Iowan’s $17,000 outstanding loan balance makes a significant difference. It cuts their monthly payment nearly in half. They can then spend that extra money to lease or purchase a car, go on a trip or start saving to buy a house or start a business.

In contrast, the economic benefits of Reynolds’ $340-million-a-year plan don’t seem obvious or robust. I’m not an economist, but I don’t see how this private school program will have a positive economic impact. It directs more money to private school teachers, which is undoubtedly a good thing. But I don’t see a larger stimulative effect.

In addition, the voucher plan doesn’t address a major need, unlike the student loan plan, spurred by the reality that entire generations of Americans are paying too much for college and at high interest rates. According to one poll taken last summer, 60 percent of Iowans opposed “creating state-funded scholarships for private school costs, indirectly using taxpayer dollars to help parents send their kids to private schools.”

While Iowa may be able to afford education savings accounts now, that may not be the case in a few years. Reynolds has been sitting on a huge state budget surplus, largely thanks to federal funding from COVID-19 relief bills and American Rescue Plan. Republicans have also cut individual and corporate taxes. When those cuts are fully phased in, and the cost of the private school program balloons in a few years, Iowa could be headed for a fiscal iceberg.

All for, by Reynolds’ estimation, an additional 2 to 3 percent of Iowa’s K-12 students to attend private schools. We’re blowing up the state budget for little to nothing in return.

“It won’t do anything to rein in education costs”

One of the most legitimate criticisms of Biden’s debt forgiveness proposal was that it did nothing to fix the longer-term problems driving college costs upwards. I totally agree. Loan forgiveness is a short-term solution, which won’t be viable if universities do not keep costs down.

In his interview with Reynolds, Dave Price asked a great question: what would she and Republicans do to ensure schools don’t raise tuition and fees now that the state will be covering them? Reynolds responded with a stammering non-answer: “I don’t think it’s gonna happen.”

I hope not! But if you’re a private school, why wouldn’t you raise tuition? Even just a little? It’s essentially what colleges and universities have been doing for decades, thanks to the ubiquity of financial aid and student loans.

To me, this argument is the most solid and most applicable to both student loan forgiveness and the private school voucher program.

I’m a firm believer that in the political arena, the best ideas win (or should win). Put two sides in the ring together, apply some critical thinking, and the strongest and most logical will be the one left standing.

I believe in public education, but I also fancy myself a fiscal conservative, so this plan does not fly with me. Additionally, Republican methods of rhetorical thinking fascinate me and, in this case, I saw an opportunity to twist their logic back on them. It’s a shame Iowa’s public school system—once among the best in the country—is heading in the wrong direction.

Of course, the Republicans don’t seem interested in an honest discussion on these topics. If they were, they would have applied their own reasoning here and deployed those same arguments against the governor’s disastrous plan.

When it comes to loan forgiveness, Republicans would rather play class warrior. And when it comes to private school vouchers, they would rather ignore the hard questions and pretend it’s what Iowans want. But when examined through this lens, it’s clear they have been disingenuous on both issues at once.

Top image: State Representative John Wills delivers closing remarks on the bill creating a school voucher program. Screenshot from Iowa House video of January 23.

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  • I should also add...

    I should also add that this seemed like an opportunity to experiment with some programs/policies to solve this “problem”. For example, why not work with the Democrats and explore a system in which the state supplies low or no-interest loans for low-income -families who would like to try a private school? Those loans could be forgivable if the student achieves a certain GPA or attends Iowa, Iowa St or UNI upon graduating.

    Again, I don’t really think any state $ should be going to private schools, but this would be a way to make it at least somewhat more palatable. It sure seemed Gov. Reynolds an opportunity to be a pioneer and do something novel/ innovative, instead of just DUMPING money on private schools. But her plan which comes with no strings attached, is just flat out reckless. When a GOPer tells you they’re a fiscal conservative, ask them how they think spending $340m/year on private school tuition is responsible.