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Iowa public schools will compete for scarce dollars
A lot of arguments were made during Monday night’s debates over providing nearly $900 million worth of state-funded Education Savings Accounts for families sending their kids to private schools over the next four years.
Most were made by Democrats in opposition to the bill. But Republicans also weighed in. I found a lot of their arguments to be misleading, at best. It’s worth noting that 11 Republicans in the House and Senate had the good sense to vote no. But it wasn’t enough.
But I do agree with one point Republican supporters made. Iowa’s public schools will now face stiff competition. But unlike Republicans, I don’t believe competition will make them better.
That’s because the competition won’t be for students. In other states with ESAs or vouchers or scholarships, whatever you want to call them, the vast majority of state dollars are going to families already sending their kids to private schools.
The competition will be for scarce state dollars.
Public schools seeking adequate funding will have to compete with an ESA program projected to cost $345 million annually They’ll have to compete with billions of dollars in tax cuts, which mostly benefit the wealthiest Iowans. Some Iowans who get the fattest tax cuts also will get state-funded ESAs they don’t really need. There will be no means tests or income limits for those who take state dollars. Pretty sweet deal.
Public schools will compete with all the interest groups seeking more tax cuts. Republican lawmakers say they want to cut property taxes, which also pay for public schools. Some GOP legislators dream of eliminating the state income tax to make Iowa a tax utopia. Income tax payments make up half of the dollars that pay for the general fund, which funds education.
Public schools will have to compete with all of the various interest groups lobbying for state resources. Given that the governor and other Republicans spent the last campaign attacking public schools as liberal dens of immorality to sell “school choice,” how well do you think public schools will fare in that competition for dollars?
Public schools will have to compete with that reckless narrative and the animosity it has spawned. They’ll have to compete with lawmakers determined to further undermine local control, replacing local decision-making with state edicts on everything from supporting LGBTQ students to issuing bonded debt to pay for infrastructure projects.
It’s exceedingly difficult to compete with a worldview, one that sees public schools as a threat, sees public school teachers as seeking to harm kids and sees escaping public schools as preferable to making the investments and doing the hard work to make them better.
Public schools and their supporters have put faith in the history of Iowa’s solid support for public education, its pride in Iowa schools and its determination to strengthen them. But that state no longer exists. Voters turned their backs on public schools, or, at best, shrugged. They handed Republicans massive majorities and the governor’s office. Many Republicans spoke of that voter “mandate” Monday.
Never mind nobody told voters about a $345 million program without limits. Maybe it wouldn’t have mattered.
Republicans shoved this through in a matter of days, exempting the bill from having to go through the appropriations process and barring amendments. Its budgetary cost was disclosed the day it passed. We’ve seen the GOP legislative bulldozers swiftly run over so many rights, protections and institutions we ought to be used to it.
But in the years ahead, we’ll find out the true cost. Public schools will be paying it.
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