116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
A voucher bill that would allow public money to be used for private schools may create more school choice, but public school education leaders are concerned about the effects it could have on special education services.
Senate Study Bill 3080, which would create a private scholarship program, would allow up to 10,000 K-12 students in Iowa to obtain a scholarship of about $5,200 to attend another school — religious, private, charter or home-school.
Advocates for the bill say it gives parents more school choice, but opponents say vouchers could have a devastating impact on public schools.
A student who qualifies for special education services but attends a private school still is entitled to those special services through the public school district within bounds of the private school — without receiving per pupil funding from the state.
This may increase if the voucher bill is passed by providing more opportunities for public school students to attend a non-public school.
Public school districts, however, will not receive the per pupil funding from the state for that student or weighted special education funding, which allows for the increased cost of providing instruction to students requiring special education above the costs of instruction of pupils in a regular curriculum.
The College Community School District, for example, had 120 students request transportation to a non-public school first semester of the 2021-22 school year, said Angie Morrison, College Community schools chief financial officer.
There most likely are more than 120 students attending non-public schools who reside in the College College School District, but they did not all request transportation. A fraction of these students may qualify for special education services.
While the district doesn’t receive per pupil funding for these students, it still is required to provide transportation or special education services if requested by the families.
Public K-12 schools in Iowa are in line for a 2.5 percent increase in state funding under a proposal that cleared the Iowa Legislature on Monday, an increase in K-12 funding to $7,413 per pupil, up from the current $7,227.
Education leaders, however, say this is not enough. The Urban Education Network of Iowa, a group of Iowa’s largest public school districts, is advocating for state funding to be set at 5 percent.
Vouchers could take public school staff time and resources away from students in the public school and allocates it to non-public school students, without the funding.
“We’re dealing with special education teacher and paraeducator shortages,” said Margaret Buckton, legislative analyst and executive director for the Urban Education Network. “Both of those are understaffed, and it’s a real concern when proposals at the Capital say we have to send our staff to private schools.”
“As we’re striving to deliver services efficiently, this is an inefficient model,” Buckton said.
Buckton worried the non-public schools will admit students who are “easiest to educate,” and public schools will lose funding for those students, making it more difficult to serve students with higher needs.
Public schools also would be required to provide transportation to students to private schools within their district if requested — a concern with the current shortage of school bus drivers most Iowa schools are facing, Buckton said.
There’s a national movement advocating for parent choice in education. However, many other states don’t have as open of an enrollment system as Iowa.
“In Iowa, anyone can open enroll to a neighboring school,” Buckton said. “Some say choice will improve public school outcomes because it creates competition, but in Iowa we already have that.”
“This is not about school choice,” said Doug Wheeler, superintendent of the College Community School District. “This is about public funds and how those are expended.
“It’s going to become more difficult to know where kids are if they aren’t in public school and the quality of education they’re receiving.”
The College Community School District does not have a private school within its district boundary, so it would not have to allocate staff services and time to meet the needs of students in private school who need additional special education programming.
However, College Community would be “financially responsible” for any student within their district boundaries who attends private school and needs special education services, Wheeler said.
Almost every public school in Iowa has a special education deficit, said Joe Brown, Clear Creek Amana interim superintendent.
“This is going to make things worse,” he said.
Special education services may be imperative to a students’ success. Julie McKibben, executive director of special education services at College Community schools, said special education teachers are “experts” at figuring out what supports students need to succeed.
Students who qualify for special education services meet frequently with a team that includes their teachers, building administrator, Area Education Agency representative and their parents or guardians.
“We have (Individualized Education Plans) for a reason,” McKibben said.
“There’s some sort of lagging skill and we need to level the playing field. When a student doesn’t have that support, are they going to be able to access education at the same rate as their peers?”
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