As Iowa lawmakers debate supplemental school aid this week, the state’s public school administrators await the fate the funding allotment will present them.
Because of the pandemic, enrollment is down in many school districts. That means that even if the 2.4% increase proposed by Iowa House of Representatives Republicans were to go through, 134 school districts will receive less money than they did last year. And the Republican Senate proposal is even less — 2.1%. What will school districts do to make up the difference in their budgets? Here’s one thing they can do: raise taxes, creating yet another burden to bear in an already difficult year.
But even though the pandemic adds a multiplier effect to an issue like the annual debate over supplemental state aid, that isn’t the most troubling legislative issue facing public schools. Of greater concern is Gov. Kim Reynolds’ “student first” scholarship fund, which proposes siphoning off public dollars for private school use in the name of school choice.
It’s a bad idea — with far-reaching implications. Not only would such a voucher program not solve the problem it is intended to fix, but it will create new ones.
The proposal would allow students in struggling schools to use taxpayer money to shift to a private school. The struggling schools would be those identified as needing comprehensive support and improvement under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act. In those districts, parents could receive funds to send children to a nonpublic school instead. Some 34 schools in the state hold that classification, including Lincoln and Fulton elementary schools in Dubuque.
Think about that for a moment. The schools have been federally designated as needing comprehensive support and improvement. So what sort of support are they getting? Is there a plan to reduce class size? Retain experienced teachers? Provide more help for students struggling to meet benchmarks? No. The plan is to allow kids to switch to private schools, taking their per-pupil allotment with them. Instead of funneling more dollars to help struggling schools, we will divert money away from public schools.
Meanwhile, research shows that this sort of choice option (read “voucher”) does little to lift up low-income students. The families most likely to take advantage of such a program are those with the means to pay for the rest of the expenses not covered by the “scholarship.”
Extensive research on school choice programs in Milwaukee and Washington, D.C. show no statistically significant difference in the performance of students in targeted groups.
As state officials engage in debating the precise amount of supplemental state aid, they should commit to one of the founding principles of democracy: taxpayer dollars support public, not private, schools.
Iowa lawmakers should consider an approach other than Reynolds’ “student first” scholarship fund. Providing earmarked funding to strengthen the state’s struggling schools could help all the students who attend there, not just a handful that opt to leave.