116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
In March, I went to the statehouse with a group from an organization that has been lobbying for school choice in Iowa to ask legislators to vote for Education Savings Accounts. We spoke with a number of elected officials that day, including several from Eastern Iowa. I didn’t say anything when Rep. Charlie McClintock came from the chamber to speak with us. I just listened as another member of our group, a constituent of Rep. McClintock, described the struggles her daughter with dyslexia was having at her public school.
On paper, the system was working for her daughter. She had an Individualized Education Plan, or IEP, in place. The school was empathetic and communicative and took seriously their obligations under state and federal law to accommodate children with unique educational needs.
In reality, things weren’t falling into place like they needed to. The curriculum the district was able to provide wasn’t having enough of an effect on the daughter’s progress. The class schedule kept her at a distance from her friends and made it so that she could not participate in her school choir, causing her to struggle socially and voice her disinterest in continuing with her education plan altogether. The only option that proved effective was the tutoring through a private service, which was costing the family thousands of dollars.
Everyone had tried their best. There was no one to point a finger at. The system just wasn’t working, and Rep. McClintock’s constituent was begging for a change.
No one will accuse Rep. McClintock of being unsympathetic or unreceptive to the pleas of this constituent, who fought through tears to describe in detail the exhausting process of advocating for her daughter’s learning. But sympathy and a willingness to listen aren’t worth much when those who have the power to put more options on the table for struggling students refuse to do so. And Charlie McClintock refused to support educational savings accounts, or “school choice” for Iowa students in need of a change.
He wasn’t alone in his refusal. Despite being a centerpiece of Gov. Kim Reynolds’ legislative agenda (with overwhelming support in the Iowa Senate) and a top priority of the party that supported their candidacies, enough Republican legislators dragged their feet or outright refused to support school choice that the bill would not have enough votes to pass the Iowa House.
Among them: Dustin Hite of New Sharon, who as House Education chair refused to move the bill through committee and now faces a primary opponent. Holly Brink of Oskaloosa, who told me on that same day in March that private school parents often make sacrifices for the cost of their children’s education that public school parents wouldn’t be able to appreciate if they used their child’s per-pupil allotments to pay their tuition — a more delicate way of telling saying she didn’t want her private school inundated with public school riffraff. Brink is not running for re-election.
Students do not attend public schools to support a system. The system is supposed to support the student.
More locally to Eastern Iowa, Rep. Lee Hein of Monticello failed to support school choice, to the dismay of many in his conservative district. On the other hand, his colleague, Rep. Steven Bradley of Cascade, did make his support clear. Redistricting after the 2020 census has Hein and Bradley facing each other for the Republican nomination in the new House District 66. It is a hotly contested primary.
Reps. Dave Maxwell and Jon Thorup were also publicly opposed to Education Savings Accounts and also face primary opponents. In an extraordinary move, Gov. Reynolds has weighed in on these races and has endorsed Rep. Dean Fisher and Barb Kniff McCulla, respectively. Like Hein and Bradley, Maxwell and Fisher are also current legislators facing off in a primary due to redistricting.
It is a highly unusual step for a sitting governor (and top-of-the-ticket candidate) to make an endorsement against an incumbent from their own party, and it suggests that should Gov. Reynolds be reelected, the issue of school choice will once again be a focal point of her agenda in 2023. For the sake of Iowans like Rep. McClintock’s constituent, it should be.
The concept of Education Savings Accounts is simple: Fund every student’s education by letting the per-pupil investment in education follow the student — period. The Iowa legislative plan was a watered-down version of that, seeking $5359 of the state’s per-pupil funding, which will total $7413 in FY2023, and capping it at 10,000 students. The families of those 10,000 students who would have received that investment obviously weren’t asking for more than public school students were receiving, or even the same. They were willing to settle for less money toward their kids’ education in exchange for letting those dollars work the way their kids needed them to work.
The chief argument of those who oppose school choice is that letting that money follow the student will take funds away from public schools. The argument is made (by most) in good faith, and I don’t envy school boards tasked with creating budgets based on how much money they get from the government.
But that’s the problem: Systems that budget based on “how much we get” when “how much we get” is in large part based on the number of students enrolled are systems that are conditioned — albeit unintentionally — to see students as dollars and cents as much as it sees them as students. Without changes to the way we fund education, that concept prevails.
Students do not attend public schools to support a system. The system is supposed to support the student. When that student’s experience is lacking, the system should not be what holds them back.
As painful it is to admit, the system designed to meet the needs of every student is in fact not meeting the needs of every student, and students with those unmet needs are suffering for want of a better option. House Republicans had a chance to provide those options. They didn’t. Some will have to fight to keep their jobs, and some might lose them. Maybe if they do, their successors will be the ones to finally help families chart the best course for their children’s education.
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