Public deserves more information on school vouchers
You don’t need a crystal ball to see that private school vouchers appear to be barreling toward passage by the Iowa Legislature, just three weeks into the 2023 session. These vouchers, or education savings accounts, or whatever you want to call them, would give parents $7,600 per year for each of their kids to attend a private K-12 school.
Although the outcome has been easy to foresee, it has not been easy to get answers to the many questions being asked across the state as lawmakers move to make this landmark change in education in Iowa.
Some questions that deserve answers include:
Does the governor and other proponents really believe $900 million can be siphoned away from Iowa’s 327 public school districts over the next four years for vouchers without harming the public schools?
The premise is to give parents a choice of where their children will be educated. Don’t parents already have a wide range of options if they can’t afford the tuition at a private school — from enrolling their kids in an adjacent public school district at no cost, to home-schooling, or enrolling them tuition-free in Iowa Connections Academy or Iowa Virtual Academy, Iowa’s two online public schools?
If a child has learning disabilities or behavior issues, or if English is not the child’s native language, do vouchers serve their intended purpose when these children can be turned away by a private school without the parents having any recourse? When that occurs, what happens to the governor’s “school choice” message?
Forty-one of Iowa’s 99 counties do not have any private schools. How are vouchers going to help students in those counties, especially when voucher money cannot be used to pay for the expense of driving to a private school in another county?
Do supporters of the governor’s proposal really think state tax revenues will be sufficient to allow the Legislature to allocate $340 million per year for vouchers indefinitely?
What happens when the income tax cuts lawmakers approved in 2022 fully take effect in the next few years? These tax cuts will reduce the state general fund revenue by about $2 billion — a reduction of about one-fifth.
Won’t the combined effects of the cost of vouchers and the reduced income tax revenue put an excruciating squeeze on the state government’s budget needs? Won’t that squeeze make it nearly impossible to maintain the services that Iowans have come to expect — from state law enforcement, to the courts, state parks, community colleges and state universities, to health care for the poor, and the public schools?
Why are Gov. Kim Reynolds and Republican leaders in the Legislature adamant to get the voucher program approved before the nonpartisan Legislative Services Agency completes its cost analysis — especially without an estimate of how much the state will pay a for-profit company that is still to be chosen to manage the voucher applications and payments?
Might the governor and Republican leaders be trying to get this proposal approved before Iowans fully understand the cost, and the consequences, and can express their opinions when their senators and representatives are back home on the weekends?
School enrollment data show there are 482,000 students attending public K-12 schools in Iowa. Private schools now serve 33,000 students.
The governor and proponents of vouchers have talked about the “failing” public schools in Iowa. Shouldn’t these officials be called on to cite specific examples of these failures, so Iowans know whether the concerns are legitimate or exaggerated?
This is the governor’s third version of a voucher program. It also is the most expensive. There are no income eligibility limits, and parents earning $15,000 a year who have been sending their kids to a public school receive vouchers of the same amount as parents earning $500,000 a year who already send their kids to private schools.
How does the governor justify giving vouchers to the wealthiest Iowans when other forms of state assistance — such as unemployment benefits, health insurance for the poor, food assistance for low-income people — have been pared back to cover fewer people or for a shorter duration because of worries about the sustaining the cost?
Proponents of vouchers point to the governor having a mandate to enact this proposal. Would people who voted for Reynolds have had a change of heart at the ballot box if she campaigned on providing an unlimited number of vouchers and with no income ceiling for eligibility? Remember, during the campaign the voucher plan on people’s minds was the one that died in 2022 for the lack of enough Republican support. It would have capped the cost of the vouchers at $55 million.
My friend Floyd was educated in the Catholic schools in Winneshiek County long before Kim Reynolds was born. His parents chose the church schools over the public schools because they wanted him and his siblings to have a solid religious foundation to their education.
Floyd opposes the governor’s vouchers for one simple reason: He thinks tax money should be used for public schools, not for church schools, nor for schools that might be started by for-profit corporations.
“Education in Iowa may need some fixing, but the law now under consideration is not the answer,” he wrote to friends last week.
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Randy Evans can be reached at DMRevans2810@gmail.com. Readers can offer their opinions on this issue through letters to the editor in the Bloomfield Democrat.