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How best to serve Iowa students drives school choice debate
Representatives from state organizations discuss the topic
It was a major topic among Iowa lawmakers earlier this year during the legislative session. It was a significant factor in the June primary elections in Republican legislative campaigns. It’s one of the top issues in Iowa’s gubernatorial campaign.
And it is sure to be one of the top issues again during next year’s legislative session.
Leaders representing Iowa organizations that are among the most invested in the debate over school choice — and more specifically, Gov. Kim Reynolds’ proposal to shift taxpayer funding for public schools to private school tuition assistance — discussed the issue last week for The Gazette’s Iowa Ideas 2022 virtual conference.
Drew Klein, state director for the Iowa chapter of Americans for Prosperity, a conservative issue advocacy organization, said expanded school choice options in Iowa are necessary to meet the unique needs of all Iowa students.
“I’ve talked to a number of educators, and I think one thing that we can all agree on is that not every child is the same, and they don’t learn the same, and they need the options to meet their own needs,” Klein said.
Melissa Peterson, a government affairs specialist with the Iowa State Education Association, the union that represents teachers and other educators statewide, said state funding should be reserved for schools that serve the most students in Iowa — in other words, the public school system.
“The Iowa State Education Association believes firmly that the finite resources of the state ought to be spent to benefit the greatest number of students possible, and to make sure that we can afford a quality educational opportunity for the nearly half-million students that we do serve here in the state of Iowa,” Peterson said.
Public school funding comprises by far the largest share of the state’s general fund budget. In the state budget year that ended in June 2021, the $3.4 billion dedicated to school aid made up 43 percent of the budget, according to the state’s nonpartisan fiscal services agency.
Over the first 38 years under Iowa’s current funding formula, general state funding to K-12 public schools increased by an annual average of 5 percent, according to data from the state agency. Since 2011, when Republicans regained at least a portion of control over the lawmaking process, that average annual K-12 funding increase has been 1.9 percent.
Peterson said the state already has robust school choice options, pointing to the School Tuition Organization tax credit, the availability of charter schools, and broad statewide open enrollment policies recently enacted by statehouse Republicans.
Klein and Trish Wilger, executive director of the Iowa Alliance for Choice in Education, said there still is a greater need for Iowa students and families to have more choices for their education.
“There are some options available to some parents right now. But depending on where they live, some of them don’t have options. And we feel that the governor’s proposal this last session made good strides in giving options to additional parents that would allow them to seek the best option for their child,” Wilger said. “With the current School Tuition Organization or STO tax credit program, it still is unable to serve the need that’s out there. There are still families that there’s just not enough funding to go around. … The need is huge.”
Peterson noted that the tax credit is not yet being fully utilized. According to the state agency, in the 2020 state budget year, $9.5 million was utilized out of a program that at that point was capped at $15 million. The program has an annually increasing cap that will level at $25 million in 2025.
Margaret Buckton, with the Rural School Advocates of Iowa and Urban Education Network of Iowa, noted the conservative Heritage Foundation ranked Iowa ninth in the nation for school choice.
The Heritage Foundation, which advocates for school choice programs, in its “Education Freedom Report Card” said, “Iowa does well in empowering families to choose among private and district schools but could do more to expand education choice,” and goes on to recommend Iowa establish education savings accounts, which are what is proposed in Reynolds’ proposed legislation.
Buckton also discussed the potential challenges that could be faced by rural Iowa schools if they lost students under Reynolds’ proposed program. The legislation failed to pass into law this year only after failing to gain support from roughly a dozen Republicans in the Iowa House, many of whom represent rural districts.
“There’s an economy of scale that exists in our larger urban centers that doesn’t exist in our rural centers,” Buckton said. “So if our rural schools were to lose two or three students, that takes with it the resource that would maybe pay for a teacher. But if they don’t all come out of the same grade, and even the loss of three students, you still have to have that second grade teacher. So it makes balancing the budget difficult if you do lose students.”
The Iowa Ideas 2022 panel discussion on school choice can be viewed online.
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