Staff Columnist

Public money should be for people, not for institutions

Iowa's school choice proposal would empower families

Students make their way to buses at the College Community School District in southwest Cedar Rapids on Thursday, Jan. 24
Students make their way to buses at the College Community School District in southwest Cedar Rapids on Thursday, Jan. 24, 2019. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

As Iowa lawmakers consider a bill to expand school choice, a common refrain has emerged among critics: “Public money for public schools.”

That phrase or some variant appears repeatedly in constituent comments submitted to the Legislature. They object in particular to a plan for education savings accounts, which would allow families to put taxpayer money toward alternatives to public schools, including private schools.

But “public money for public schools” is a slogan, not a policy position, and it’s not even a good slogan at that. Apply it to other areas and it quickly breaks down.

We don’t make hungry people subsist on government cheese, we offer assistance to go to the grocery store. We don’t force all housing insecure people into government projects, we offer vouchers to put toward rent. We don’t restrict the indigent to government-run health clinics, we reimburse many different providers for their care.

Even at other levels of education, the same holds true. People receiving child care assistance can send their children to private preschools, and Pell Grant recipients can enroll at private colleges.

It’s all based on the radical notion that humans should not forego their basic right to self determination just because they need some collective assistance.

In my former job at a local food pantry, I became a fervent advocate for self determination. The pantry was set up like a miniature grocery store, and clients “shopped” for their own food. Most items had no limits on what clients could take.

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Occasionally, visitors asked why clients get to choose their food, instead of being given a presorted box of supplies. Wouldn’t that be easier? And the recurring question, “If they need assistance, why do they have smartphones?”

What’s overlooked here is that people are people, even if they are impoverished. Given the autonomy and resources to make their own decisions, most people will make the right choices for their families most of the time.

Wealthy Iowans already have school choice. When they send their children to private schools, they defund public schools in much the same way, by withholding per-pupil funding from the public school district they would otherwise attend. This includes some school choice opponents in the Iowa Legislature.

Senate File 159 — which was approved by the Senate last month and awaits House consideration — is significant, but it is not the sweeping overhaul detractors are making it out to be.

Education savings accounts, called Student First Scholarships in the bill, are estimated to cost the state $3.8 million by their third year. That’s equal to about one-tenth of 1 percent of Iowa’s annual K-12 funding. The per-pupil funding works out to less than public school districts receive for each student.

Only students from a select group of struggling schools would be eligible for the scholarships. Currently that includes just 34 schools representing about 10,000 students, and analysts expect only a small portion of them will take advantage of the program.

“Other bills are more expansive than this one. … In the grand scheme of things, Iowa’s is one of the smaller ones,” said Corey DeAngelis, school choice director for the Reason Foundation.

adam.sullivan@thegazette.com; (319) 339-3156

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