School Funding

Investing in Iowa Public Schools

Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds arrives to deliver his statehood address January 12 before a joint session of the Iowa Legislature at the Des Moines Capitol. In that speech, Reynolds proposed private scholarships and other changes that could impact public school funding. (Charlie Neibergall/Associated Press)

Lawmakers should reject state-funded scholarships for private schools

The Republican-controlled Iowa State Senate has approved legislation creating state-funded scholarships for private school students and imposing new transparency requirements on school districts regarding curriculum, library books and other documents.

At the GOP House, some lawmakers have been more reluctant to accept state funding of what opponents call “vouchers” to private schools. Instead, the House has a bill that includes transparency requirements but no scholarships.

Efforts are being made to reach an agreement. But we hope that the House, at least, will stop the scholarship train.

The scholarships in the Senate bill would provide $5,520 in annual tuition assistance to 10,000 Iowa students from families with incomes at 400% of poverty or less . For a family of four, it’s $111,000. The $5,520 represents approximately 70% of state aid per student. The remaining 30% 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 played a rigorous game of good cop, bad cop.

On the bright side, proponents say the scholarships would help low- and middle-income families choose the education choice that’s right for them. It is a matter of fairness and freedom.

It’s a reasonable argument. But we will argue that Iowa families already have that choice without dipping into the dollars that are supposed to fund our public schools.

But the GOP bad cops are anything but reasonable. They linked the push for private school payments to their exaggerated calls for banning “obscene” books from school libraries, attacks on the teaching of unvarnished American history, and baseless claims about theory. racial criticism taught in Iowa schools. They talk about Marxist indoctrination and a “sinister agenda” in schools regarding pedophilia that comes straight from the QAnon files.

These alarmist attacks on public schools and educators have been shameful and damaging.

But if you discard all that outrageous righteousness, the debate comes down to resources.

Consider the fact that, amid record inflation, the legislature only approved a 2.5% increase in the state’s PK-12 education budget of $3.4 billion. That’s about half of what school districts have asked for, and it’s the latest in a string of paltry annual increases.

That 2.5% adds up to $172 million next school year. But if the 10,000 grants are distributed, it would cost $55 million. Another $24 million would go to the shared resources fund. Thus, the potential cost to districts of $79 million could wipe out nearly half of this increased funding.

So, in the competition for precious state funding, which system should get public money? The system that serves more than 485,000 public school students? Or 10,000 children sent to private schools?

And if you think Republicans will keep that 10,000 student cap, you haven’t paid attention to this legislature for the past five years.

Iowa’s public education system was created as an investment in Iowa’s future and has been a point of pride for Iowans for decades. Governors and legislators have worked hard over the years to create initiatives and make new investments in the system. Some have been successful and some less so, but the effort to improve and transform public education has been an article of faith for 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 drop the system and take the taxpayers’ money with them. “Take the money and run,” quickly became the theme of Reynolds’ education program.

We are apparently so divided that we can no longer even agree that all of our children deserve high quality, accessible public schools. The solution to this problem is elusive. But we know that taxpayers’ money should go to public schools, period.

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