116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
I probably won’t endear myself to my journalism colleagues for writing this, but it is a fact that I am not a fan of fact-checking. My brother, who’s almost as smart as I am, put it best many moons ago, when he surmised that a fact-checker “controls the context around the claim.”
The guy has a point. A handful of people could research the same exact claim and each assign it a different rating based on the context within which they review it. With the fact-checker’s own perspective playing such a large role in the overall determination, it’s not that difficult for a fact-check to look less like a tool of reporting and more like an opinion piece.
That theory, however, makes fact-checking right up my alley as an opinion writer. So I’m going to pop my fact-checking cherry here and examine a claim that’s been thrown around quite a bit during these last (and first) two weeks of the state legislative session as the battle rages over the Students First Act, which, if passed, will create Education Savings Accounts. ESAs allow an equal portion of per-pupil state education dollars to follow an Iowa student to an educational setting of their choice, public or nonpublic.
It’s a simple claim, with a tremendous implication: “Private schools have no accountability.” I review it from my long-established perspective, which my previous editorials dating back almost 10 months indicate is one that favors ESAs. I make no bones about context here: I’m not trying to prove the claim correct because I have never once believed that it is.
I don’t have to work too hard to demonstrate how the notion of private schools being unaccountable is just flat-out wrong. On its map of state regulations for nonpublic schools, the U.S. Department of Education has a sizable list of standards determined by the state of Iowa for accredited nonpublic schools in Iowa. Among them: That nonpublic teachers must hold a license or a certificate for the type of position in which they are employed. Nonpublic schools must maintain adequate staffing. They must have a calendar year of at least 180 days, must have an attendance policy with a minimum number of days of attendance required each quarter, and must establish a policy to address truancy.
Just like in public schools, curriculum standards also must be met by accredited nonpublic schools, which state law requires be presented with a “multicultural, gender-fair approach.” Iowa Code 256.11 establishes rules across the board for public and private schools alike: Elementary standards include language arts, social studies, math, science, art, and more. Grades 7 and 8 specify the same, with the exception of replacing traffic safety education with those uncomfortable units on sexually transmitted diseases. By grades 9-12, the requirements get even more detailed. Save for the tiniest exceptions, they are identical between public and accredited nonpublic schools.
Professional development for staff is also required for private schools in Iowa. Iowa Administrative Code carves out specific rules for nonpublic schools in that they must “align with school achievement goals and shall be based on student achievement needs and staff professional development needs.” Nonpublic schools are also obligated to include the costs of professional development in their budget.
More rules for private schools exist beyond that. They must keep detailed student records and furnish them when requested. They must fly the American flag and the flag of Iowa on a flagpole. Corporal punishment is prohibited — no getting rapped on the knuckles by a nun with a ruler. They even have to offer their 17 ½-year-old students the opportunity to register to vote.
Importantly, state law makes no distinction between public and private schools for requirements reporting child abuse or handling dangerous weapons, including procedures for students suspended or expelled for the possession of such on school grounds.
The point is pretty clear: A long and detailed list of state laws and rules exist for the operation of accredited private schools. “Accredited” is an important word, and the most obvious indicator of the fallacy behind the notion that private schools are unaccountable. Prior to meeting ongoing requirements of schools in Iowa, the accreditation process ensures that a school — public or private — has achieved what the state considers “minimum, uniform requirements” to be established as an educational institution.
The Students First Act requires that any nonpublic school that wishes to open its doors to students using ESA dollars be an accredited school. The accreditation process wouldn’t be new to existing nonpublic schools, who already face requirements for certain kinds of assistance.
“In order to get any kind of support — state funding, like for help with transportation, textbooks, Area Education Agencies, you have to be accredited by the state of Iowa,” says Jan Doellinger of Cedar Rapids. After a career spanning 40 years as a teacher and administrator in various Lutheran schools, Doellinger now serves as the Assistant to the President for Schools for the Lutheran Church of the Missouri Synod Iowa District East, and is deeply involved in the accreditation process for Lutheran schools in her area.
While private schools may continue to use the Iowa Department of Education’s process for becoming accredited, an alternate option was added in 2013 to allow nonpublic schools to obtain accreditation independently of the state. Iowa Administrative Code outlines criteria for determining and maintaining a list of regional or national organizations “recognized as reliable authorities concerning the quality of education offered by a school.” One of the six independent agencies recognized by the state of Iowa National Lutheran School Accreditation, or NLSA.
Doellinger described the rigorous NLSA accreditation process as an “ongoing cycle” that starts with a committee of members of the school community forming to meticulously evaluate itself through a self-study. The study is followed by on-site visits are completed by a diverse team of outside experts who spend several days interviewing parents, students and faculty to confirm that what they observe matches the self-study completed by the school. After their on-site visit, the team of experts will make a formal recommendation about the school’s accreditation. The process is repeated every five years.
“Our goal is to meet or exceed state standards,” says Doellinger. Not only are the standards high — the stakes, are, too. Should a Lutheran school’s five-year NLSA accreditation process not be completed, or should it reveal processes that are deficient, the school would lose their accreditation. The loss of enrollment and tuition revenue would follow, and the school would surely have to close. To avoid doing so demands a degree of accountability no law or rule could ever aim to do.
That’s what critics of school choice seem to be unable to recognize — that accountability exists outside the scope of government oversight. The ultimate accountability private schools face is to the families relying on them to provide a top-quality education to their students. Should they fail in that mission, those families will hold them accountable by taking their children — and their education dollars — elsewhere.
Educators like Doellinger strongly disagree with the characterization that school choice will pit public schools against private schools. No private school is trying to poach students from their local district or tap into a free-flowing well of taxpayer dollars to fill their coffers. School choice is about ensuring that each student has the ability to take advantage of the best learning available, afforded to them through no more or less than their equal share of funding. Should a student find that environment in a private school, will that environment be exempt from accountability? This fact-check renders a verdict of “False.”
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