Guest Columnist

Iowa's 'school choice' bill is a wolf in sheep's clothing

The Senate chambers are seen from the galley area at the Iowa Capitol in Des Moines on Thursday, Dec. 19, 2019. (Andy Ab
The Senate chambers are seen from the galley area at the Iowa Capitol in Des Moines on Thursday, Dec. 19, 2019. (Andy Abeyta/The Gazette)

Here’s an idea: Let’s divert tax dollars from local schools to help wealthy families and families with high functioning students and the means to make the logistics work attend private or charter schools. This diversion of tax dollars will make it more affordable for these families to get the exact schooling they wish for their children. This diversion of tax dollars will allow them to use tax dollars to fund schools that no longer have to accept nor attempt to educate children with special needs, behavior problems, or, because of the negative secondary impacts of growing up in poverty, may be less ready for school (often called “behind”). In addition, let’s make it so that these schools no longer have to answer to elected local school boards — they can run themselves!

This is exactly what is being proposed by SF 159 a bill to introduce vouchers and charters to the state of Iowa. These programs, often referred to as “choice” programs appeal to parents on the surface because, let’s face it, who doesn’t want a choice? This legislation is a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Iowans need to understand: the money to support the vouchers and charters comes from them and is taken directly from the budgets of their local schools. If students in one district opt for one of these options, their home district is an immediate loser. These programs have proved to have a detrimental impact on schools with large percentages of low income students and in Iowa a large percentage of those students live in our rural districts. In fact, projections indicate that under the proposed legislation, about $50 million would be used to benefit just about 10,000 students who wish to get funding to attend a private school. Where are those schools? Look at a map: for the most part they are not in rural districts. This is an incredible loss to school budgets everywhere and will be felt disproportionately by rural schools.

The Iowa State Quarter depicts a one-room schoolhouse and the words “Foundation in Education.” This 2004 design proudly relates Iowa’s commitment to providing a strong foundation in education for all Iowans. If we were truly dedicated to providing a strong foundation in education to all students we would be passing legislation that increases school budgets and helps all students. This bill does not do that. It speaks loudly that of the many lobbyists declarations, a majority are “against” and include public schools, unions, the Iowa Mental Health Planning Council and the United Way among others. Lobbyists “for” include groups based outside of Iowa and those who stand to profit, such as Stride, Inc. (an online education platform) and once again, the outside interest group Americans for Prosperity.

I’ve worked in Massachusetts and Arizona where the public schools suffered because of similar legislation. There is no data to indicate that charters and vouchers improve educational outcomes overall, and particularly not for the most vulnerable students. I believe that Iowa should return to its historic dedication to world class public schools.

Jennie S. Schmidt, Ph.D., of West Branch is an associate professor of education at Mount Mercy University and a long time advocate for public schools.

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