Competition, choice, and opportunity. Those are the main arguments from Republican lawmakers for the revival of a bill—Senate File 128—which would give Iowa parents and guardians money from the state to enroll their child or children in nonpublic schools.
During an education subcommittee meeting Tuesday, the majority of speakers were opposed to the idea of creating a statewide school voucher system in everything but name. The major concerns were lack of accountability or transparency in private schools, the lack of anti-discrimination requirements, and that funneling state money to private schools takes that money away from public schools.
Melissa Petersen of the Iowa State Education Association, which is registered against the bill, summed up the main argument.
“We are serving more than 484,000 students in our public education system and we are doing that to the best of our abilities with the finite resources the state has,” she said. “We think those resources need to go to support those 484,000 students.”
To the point about choice, Phil Jeneary of the Iowa Association of School Boards said parents do have options.
“We believe that there already is sufficient choice in schools today,” he said. “There’s open enrollment, the legislature got rid of the diversity programs last year, the legislature passed charter schools last year as well. So we feel there is already choice in public education as it is right now.”
There are also concerns about discrimination when it comes to private schools.
Keenan Crow, director of policy and advocacy for One Iowa, said this bill would put public tax money toward schools that don’t explicitly say they won’t discriminate against a student or their family based on sexual orientation or gender identity.
“These nonpublic schools have every right to teach their religious principles as they see fit,” Crow said. “However, there’s nothing that obligates taxpayers to provide support for institutions that intend to permit discrimination.”
One Iowa surveyed 181 nonpublic schools in Iowa and found the policy handbooks of 176. Crow said the organization found 75% of those schools’ policies indicated they would be willing to discriminate against LGBTQ Iowans, and only 15% stated they would not.
Connie Ryan, the executive director of the Interfaith Alliance of Iowa and Action Fund, which also registered against the bill, said Iowans should not have to fund religious ministry. The majority of private schools in Iowa are religiously affiliated.
“Public funds should not be used for religious ministry and should not be diverted away from public schools, the provider of education to over 92% of Iowa’s children, and it should not be given for private choices,” Ryan said.
Republicans say that the idea of competition will make public schools perform even better so they retain students.
Margaret Buckton with the Urban Education Network and the Rural School Advocates of Iowa said if competition did improve outcomes, Iowa would have seen it already because of the variety of options parents already have.
Buckton also said programs already exist to support parents who want to send their children to private schools. A previous education reform bill has a funding mechanism for underperforming schools, but it’s never been funded.
“Since our public schools are already facing budget challenges and keeping up with inflation, and as this body contemplates tax cuts, we’re just really concerned that you’ll put more of this on your fiscal plate and not be able to adequately fund public schools in the future,” Buckton said.
Sens. Jim Carlin and Brad Zaun argued Iowa should provide opportunities to parents who still aren’t satisfied with their options. Both said good public schools don’t outweigh the existence of bad schools.
“During COVID, parents had their eyes opened because they had to do a lot of online learning and they got to see what was actually going on from a curriculum standpoint, mostly, in the classrooms,” Zaun said. “Then it’s been enhanced because of the book controversy and some of the garbage that’s been taught to some of our kids. This bill here gives parents the choice to get out of a school that’s, I think, underperforming.”
Zaun also suggested for-profit corporations do a better job of delivering education. And, based on competition he’s observed in the business world, the same competition would make schools more focused on improving.
Carlin backed up the concern about books, adding mask mandates to the list of concerns.
“The best opportunity available,” he said. “Parents, not government, not the state, should be the ones making that call. The presumption that the state knows what is best for a child is something that I think is very subject to reasonable question.”
Zaun and Carlin advanced the bill to the full education committee.
Sen. Claire Celsi did not sign on to the bill moving forward. She said there’s too much evidence that private schools don’t perform better than public schools when controlled for demographics. Additionally, Celsi said redirecting funding away from public schools isn’t going to help them improve.
“Schools are already busy meeting standards laws and student needs,” she said. “There’s not a focus on competition in the K-12 environment with other institutions, public or private, they’re simply too busy trying to get students prepared for their futures.”
CORRECTION (Jan. 26, 2022, 9:15 a.m.): Two misspellings of Margaret Buckton’s name have been corrected.