116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
Until last year, several school districts in Iowa would prevent certain families living in the district from transferring their kids into a different school district. When a law was passed to prohibit that practice, hundreds of students were open-enrolled by their families to new schools outside the district. The districts those families left behind learned a lesson that shouldn’t come as a surprise: When better options exist elsewhere, many will leave to pursue them.
Having an array of educational options available is a good thing. Making a strong investment into those options is also a good thing. But Iowa’s investment into the education of its students isn’t as robust as it could be, and never will be as long as it prioritizes a system over students.
Currently, the basic per-pupil funding Iowa invests into education reaches only those whose needs are met by the public school system. Students with needs which warrant a non-public school education are not entitled to benefit from that investment. If Iowa can finally pass legislation to ensure that education funding follows the student, most commonly known as “school choice,” 2022 could be the year that all of Iowa’s students, regardless of how their needs are met, can begin to benefit from the use of state education dollars.
It can be uncomfortable to acknowledge that some students still fall through cracks in a system that is supposed to meet the needs of all. To too many people, speaking out about the instances when students haven’t succeeded in a public school is synonymous with attacking the public school system and its dedicated professionals as a whole.
To admit that some public school students have been let down by the public school system can be uncomfortable. But to actually experience the shortcomings of that system can be excruciating. My heart breaks for the families whose experiences in the public school system have left them desperate for other options. Their stories are critical to understanding why, despite the insistences of public education activists and their allies, many Iowa families support school choice.
After watching him struggle significantly, Jennifer* from Cedar Rapids saw huge gains in her son’s reading comprehension after she withdrew her children from public school at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Now that her children have returned to public school, Jennifer is concerned that her son is regressing and will once again fall behind. Would flexible funding options, such as those presented in current school choice legislation, make a difference in her children’s education? “Absolutely,” she says without hesitation.
Performance results show that the public school Jennifer’s children attend is listed as “Priority,” which is the lowest of six possible ratings given by the Iowa Department of Education for the Iowa School Performance Profiles. Several other elementaries in the district share that rating. Currently, to use the money the state has invested into her children’s education, Jennifer must keep her kids in a system that has proved inadequate. But to use options that have proved effective, she must forfeit the money the state would otherwise provide.
It's a terrible dilemma for the parent who has to choose between the education their child needs and the education they can afford. And it’s one Jennifer contends is experienced by many other parents besides her.
Katherine* from Center Point received conflicting answers about her daughter’s learning disability after having her tested by both the area education agency and the neighboring public school district where she open-enrolled. Identifying and utilizing the public school services required Katherine to navigate a tangled bureaucratic web in order to properly advocate for her daughter’s needs. She assigns no blame to her local district, which worked with her as reasonably as its circumstances allowed — circumstances which were dictated in part by the financial realities of the public school system.
Financial realities have also posed challenges to Katherine and her husband as they’ve had to turn to private educational tools such as tutoring to fill the gaps in their daughter’s progress. Though ultimately very successful, the cost of those services has affected the family’s financial health. Katherine wants to see public school funding work the way it’s been intended. But when the dollars put into the system aren’t impacting the student for whom they are allotted, Katherine and other parents like her begin to wonder: “Why can’t my tax dollars just go toward helping my kid?”
They could help children like Jennifer’s and Katherine’s — in the form of the Student First scholarships currently being discussed in the Statehouse. The plan would allow a healthy portion of a student’s per-pupil public funding to follow that student to the institution of their choice, even if that institution is a non-public school. Currently, over 32,000 Iowa students actively seek their education through a non-public institution. How many more might find lasting educational success if the tax dollars their families contribute are allowed to work for them?
Even some of Iowa’s most ardent public school advocates demonstrate with their own choices that seeking the right fit for a child’s education can sometimes mean looking outside the public school system. Dwana Bradley is the board chairwoman for Des Moines Public Schools. Of all the children served by her position, her son is not one of them — he attends a private school. Tammy Wawro is the former president of the Iowa State Education Association, aka the teachers union. She has sent offspring to a private Catholic school.
It's easy for critics to claim hypocrisy and charge that Bradley and Wawro don’t find the very system they promote to be worthy of their own families. To be fair, a public school activist sending her children to private school does seem to send a mixed message. Like any other parent, though, they have the right to determine what type of education is best for their children.
Where Bradley and Wawro differ from other families is that they’ve already secured the resources to pursue private schooling. Many families earning significantly less than the $137,777 Wawro makes as a middle school teacher aren’t able to cover the whole cost of tuition. But if a student’s per-pupil public funding could make that expense more manageable for middle and lower-income families, options that for the longest time have seemed unrealistic could finally be available to those families.
It's not about diverting money from public schools, as opponents have claimed. It’s not about funneling tax dollars to elitist institutions and their wealthy patrons. It’s about ensuring that Iowa’s education dollars are available to as many students as possible, regardless of circumstance.
Current legislation calls for student first scholarships to be available for up to 10,000 Iowa students, meaning 10,000 lives could be changed for the better if school choice becomes law. No child should cease to be worth a public investment in education if their needs can’t be met by the prescribed system. Iowa’s education dollars should follow its students, and Iowa’s students should follow their own path to educational success.
*Names have been changed to protect identities
Althea Cole is a Gazette editorial fellow. Comments: firstname.lastname@example.org