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Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
Lawmakers should reject state-funded scholarships for private schools
Iowa’s Republican-controlled state Senate has approved legislation creating publicly funded scholarships for private school students and placing new transparency requirements on school districts regarding curriculum, library books and other materials.
In the GOP House, some lawmakers have been more reluctant to embrace state funding for what opponents call “vouchers” to private schools. The House instead has a bill that includes transparency requirements but no scholarships.
Efforts are being made to cut a deal. But we hope the House, at least, stops the scholarship train.
The scholarships in the Senate bill would provide $5,520 in annual tuition assistance to 10,000 Iowa students in families with incomes at 400 percent of poverty or less. For a family of four, that’s $111,000. The $5,520 is roughly 70 percent of per-pupil state aid. The other 30 percent would go into a fund to help schools that share positions such as mental health or guidance counselors.
Key details on how the scholarships would be administered are unclear.
Republicans who support what Gov. Kim Reynolds and other backers call “school choice,” have been playing a rigorous game of good cop, bad cop.
On the good side, supporters say the scholarships would help low and middle income families select the education choice that’s right for them. It’s about fairness and freedom.
It’s a reasonable argument. But we’d counter that Iowa families already have that choice without scooping into dollars that are supposed to be funding our public schools.
But the GOP bad cops are being anything but reasonable. They’ve tied the push for private school payments to their overwrought calls for banning “obscene” books in school libraries, attacks on the teaching of unvarnished American history and baseless claims about critical race theory being taught in Iowa schools. They talk of Marxist indoctrination and a “sinister agenda” in schools regarding pedophilia that comes straight from the QAnon files.
These fearmongering attacks on public schools and educators have been shameful and damaging.
But if you brush aside all the outrageous righteousness, the debate comes down to resources.
Consider the fact that, amid record inflation, the Legislature approved just a 2.5 percent increase in the state’s $3.4 billon PK-12 education budget. That’s about half of what school districts asked for and is the latest in a series of paltry annual increases.
That 2.5 percent adds up to $172 million next school year. But if all 10,000 grants are handed out, that would cost $55 million. Another $24 million would go into the fund for shared resources. So the potential cost to districts of $79 million could erase nearly half of that increased funding.
So in the competition for precious state funding, which system should get the public money? The system that serves more than 485,000 public school students? Or 10,000 kids headed to private schools?
And if you think Republicans will keep that 10,000-student cap in place, you haven’t been paying attention to this Legislature over the past five years.
Iowa’s public education system was created as an investment in the future of Iowa and has been a point of pride for Iowans for decades. Governors and legislators have worked hard over the years creating initiatives and making new investments in the system. Some were successful and some less so, but the effort to improve and transform public education has been an article of faith in both parties.
That is, until now. Reynolds and the Senate are sending us in a new direction, one where public schools are the target of culture war vitriol for political gain while policies are aimed at helping Iowans abandon the system and take tax dollars with them. “Take the money and run,” is fast becoming the theme of Reynolds’ education agenda.
We are seemingly so divided, we can no longer even agree that all our kids deserve high-quality, accessible public schools. The solution to that problem is elusive. But we do know that public tax dollars should go to public schools, period.
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