As a product of and a parent to a student in public schools, as well as a school board member, I cannot emphasize enough how important these institutions are to our communities. Public schools are one of many "common goods" we invest in as part of a civil society. Just as my taxes would not be sufficient to bring water to my home, pooling that money with other citizens allows us all to benefit from clean tap water. By providing a quality education to all students, regardless of disability, English language proficiency, or zip code, public schools form the cornerstone of a strong community.
When I moved to Iowa eight years ago, I didn’t worry about the schools my children would attend. Today, I fear they will collapse. The governor’s omnibus education bill is, quite frankly, a direct attempt to "defund" public schools. It allows taxpayer money to be used to pay for private (and even religious) schooling. It opens the door to for-profit "educational" companies to run amok in our state with little accountability for educational outcomes. And it limits local control — the ability of school boards to determine how best to preserve diversity in their own districts.
As currently written, there are "only" 34 schools in the state whose students would qualify to receive vouchers, but, like Pandora’s box, once the door to vouchers is open, it is easily opened further and hard to close again. Veiled as "school choice", the governor’s drive to create a voucher system will pull money from public schools that her administration has already underfunded for years. The use of "choice" is misleading. Of the schools eligible, many are rural, and are either nowhere near a private school, or are so small that losing just a couple of students may mean the difference between staying open and closing entirely. Most importantly, private schools may choose to admit or decline admission to any student for any reason, and typically cannot or will not serve students who need Special Education services, or are English language learners. Public schools are required to educate all students, cannot refuse anyone, and do not teach religion classes.
This education legislation would also establish a charter school system that lies outside the purview of local school boards. These schools lack the transparency and accountability for taxpayer money required by public schools. Further, charter schools listed as non-profit may be run by for-profit management companies; cases of waste, fraud and misuse of public money abound in charter education.
Finally, the legislation eliminates the ability of districts to enact voluntary diversity plans to control open enrollment. These plans prevent districts from developing concentrations of high-need, high-poverty students and maintain a distribution of students that more accurately reflects the greater community. School boards have been elected by the community to make these types of decisions. This legislation revokes that ability.
Ultimately, what really stings is that the governor and legislature have allocated just 1% to 2.5% increases in state funding to public schools for the last few years. This amount, though it may increase in absolute dollars, does not keep up with inflation, and is therefore, essentially a budget cut. Further, the governor bragged about a budget surplus amidst a global pandemic. Rather than using some of that surplus for increasing state funding to improve the education of 94% of Iowa children, she proposes to pull money from those students to pay others to opt out of the system. This is incredibly short-sighted and wrong for Iowa.
Allison L. Beck is a member of the Davenport School Board.