Education

College Community superintendent says 'no' to school vouchers

Doug Wheeler opposes Iowa Legislature bill that would spend public money on private schools

College Community School District Superintendent Doug Wheeler talks to some members of his Cabinet during a meeting June
College Community School District Superintendent Doug Wheeler talks to some members of his Cabinet during a meeting June 7, 2018, in Cedar Rapids. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

CEDAR RAPIDS — Public school boards across the state are voicing their opposition to a bill backed by Gov. Kim Reynolds that would allow public funds to be used for private schools through a voucher program.

Reynolds’ bill — Senate File 159 — proposes three elements of school choice by establishing state funding for students in struggling public schools who wish to attend a private school; creating a charter school program; and allowing students to transfer out of schools with diversity plans.

The governor’s staff estimates the bill initially would cost up to $3 million, even though about 10,000 students attending 34 public schools that are receiving support under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act would qualify for the scholarship fund.

Although College Community School District doesn’t have any schools whose students would qualify for the voucher program, Superintendent Doug Wheeler is opposed to the proposal.

Wheeler, who recently spoke with The Gazette, said he is speaking up to support the schools that are on the federal list and to show how vouchers could affect public schools as a whole.

Q: What is your stance on school vouchers?

A: We already have school choice in Iowa through open enrollment. That’s what makes it so confusing that the state would be pursuing (school vouchers), a system that has not improved schools in so many other states. It pulls money directly out of public schools.

Q: Do you think school vouchers can be successful in Iowa?

A: I don’t. If the argument is about choice, Iowa students and families have choice through open enrollment. If the argument is for students in schools that if we offer vouchers, students with less financial resources or non-white students will choose to take that voucher and go outside their public school, even those schools’ students already have that right of open enrollment.

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State by state by state, it has not been successful. My predictions would be based on the experience of other states.

Q: What are your thoughts on private school?

A: I think people believe when public schools stand up against vouchers, it’s a case of discrediting private schools. What it really is is a concern of using public funds to support schools that are not required to offer the same levels of protection and accountability to students.

There’s quality private schools in Iowa and great private school educators in Iowa. This isn’t an indictment of private schools in Iowa. It’s about supporting public schools with public funds.

Q: How could school vouchers affect a public school district’s programming or staffing?

A: Programming I think would be the first impact you would see. It’s been a slow squeeze over the past decade and a half in Iowa. We have to make budget decisions: Here’s the things we have to offer and teach as part of the core curriculum, and here’s the things that can enhance the lives of our students. It could impact our ability to offer programming beyond the core in a robust way.

In a school that is struggling, I haven’t seen the ability to really expand programming to the extent you can in a school that doesn’t have that (failing) designation or label because you’re using your resources to try to grow students more than a year (academically).

The impact on staffing — that would be interesting. We have a staffing challenge in public schools already. I can’t imagine it improving it.

Comments: (319) 398-8411; grace.king@thegazette.com

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