DES MOINES, Iowa – On Tuesday, two Iowa House subcommittees approved school choice legislation, with one bill creating an Education Savings Account program and another expanding Iowa’s charter school law.
HSB 243 creates Student First Scholarships, which are education savings accounts (ESA) for students entering kindergarten or currently attending a public school identified under the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) as needing comprehensive support.
Families can use the scholarship for various qualified educational expenses such as nonpublic school tuition, curriculum fees, materials, cognitive skills training, tuition for vocational and life skills training, etc.
HSB 242 is legislation that expands charter school law in Iowa, allowing the state board of education to approve charter schools established by independent founding groups and not just school districts.
During the subcommittee for HSB 243, which The Iowa Torch watched, Logan Shine, representing Governor Kim Reynolds’ office, explained the bill that is part of her Students First initiative.
“We know students in Iowa learn differently than one another. And we know that when there’s an environment where school choices available, that not just those students that choose that option, but all students are going to do better,” he said.
“There’s no greater degree of local control than giving the parents the choice to choose what is best for their child. And that’s what this does,” he added.
Emily Piper representing the Iowa Association of School Boards opposed the legislation.
“We believe the public school public dollars should be spent on public schools with locally elected leaders to provide that oversight and transparency,” she said.
Piper said there will always schools that are in the bottom five percent.
“They’re not failing schools; they are schools that are challenged with the individuals that they have. And if you look at the community, the average graduation rate amongst all those buildings and the districts they’re in its 87 percent. That tells me the schools aren’t failing that they’re doing something right,” she added.
Piper also expressed the fear that the program will grow.
“We believe that the best answer for our failing schools is to provide the resources,” she stated.
Jake Highfill, representing EdChoice, spoke in favor of the bill, saying it empowers parents and their children.
“We believe arents know best,” he said.
Melissa Petersen with the Iowa State Education Association, the largest teachers’ union in the state, spoke out against the bill.
“Our biggest fear with this piece of legislation is not only does it take public tax dollars to subsidize private and or religious schools, but we have resources that show that we have significant locations of private and religious school deserts across the state,” she said. “And so these vouchers, scholarships, whatever you would like to call them, are going to be used to benefit certain communities and exclude others. That is not equitable. That penalizes folks, frankly, because of the zip code and where they are living.”
Even though scholarships would go to accounts controlled by parents, Petersen wanted to see any school with a child using an ESA to have the same accountability and transparency public schools have.
Iowa has regulated accredited nonpublic schools for years without providing any taxpayer funding.
Rev. Keith Ratliff, the pastor at Maple Street Baptist Church, a historically black church in Des Moines, spoke in favor of the bill. He serves as the Executive Director and Elementary Principal for Joshua Christian Academy. This Christian school serves primarily inner-city kids in Des Moines.
“I believe it is very important for people to understand school choice as it applies to families. For example, currently, there are some families who are very disappointed with what other children are learning and public schools. Very often, the reason for this is because it does not agree at all, with their teachings from home and with their faith,” he said. “School choice allows the families in each family to choose where they want their children to align their education with; whether it be Christian education, homeschooling, charter schools are public schools.”
Margaret Buxton from the Urban Education Network said their opposition to the bill is not a reflection of the quality education private schools provide.
“We simply oppose public dollars for private purposes without the corresponding oversight, transparency, expectations, and accountability should that should accompany those public funds,” she said.
Buxton noted that Iowa already has school choice in open enrollment, homeschooling options, school tuition organization tax credits, and tuition and textbook tax credits.
She reiterated the challenges schools in the bottom five percent face.
“Those students that are in the ESSA bottom five percent of schools are majority poverty, majority non-English speaking. They have more disabilities as a group. And those schools are striving to meet the needs of those students and eventually get closer even further than what most other states do in terms of graduation rate,” Buxton said.
She also warned that the ESA program may be limited now, but it will grow as different schools make-up the bottom five percent and students who start in the ESA program can continue whether their school improves or not.
A mother from Johnson County, who did not identify herself to the subcommittee, spoke in favor of the bill.
“I am fortunate that my parents were able to have and make a choice for my education based on what they thought was the best for me. As part of my K through 12 education, I attended both public and private schools,” she said. “My husband and I are also grateful that we have the means to make choices for our children based on what we think is in their best interest. In our case, we have chosen to have one child in a private school and one in a public school. I think all parents should be empowered to make the best choice for their children, regardless of their zip code and socioeconomic status.”
“Without your support, the status quo will remain. The only people with a choice are those with the means to buy that choice,” she added.
Connie Ryan, with the Interfaith Alliance of Iowa, made similar points as opponents of the bill and also said, “Public funds should never be used for the religious education of any student.”
Another unidentified mother spoke in favor of the bill.
“I believe that public funds should empower the public to make the choice that’s best for their own children,” she said. “I am a co-founder of a private school in which we offer tuition on a sliding scale. And the children that come to our school would not have another option if we did not make our school accessible and affordable for them.”
“Our families sacrifice a lot even though they don’t have much means to sacrifice. They drive their own students to school. They pack their kids lunches because we don’t have the option of providing lunch for them. Some of our teachers drive our students to school every morning before they work a full day of teaching. And they’re willing to bypass the conveniences of public school because they want another option. And they want faith to be included in their education,” she added.
Keenan Crow with One Iowa opposed the bill because many religious private schools have policies that would not allow LGBT students to attend.
“So there are about 181 accredited nonpublic schools in the state of Iowa. We were able to find policies for 176 of them,” he said. “Of that group, 75 percent of those institutions indicated in some way that they would be willing to discriminate against LGBTQ students and staff, only 15 percent had explicit nondiscrimination protections that matched all the protected classes in the Iowa Civil Rights Act,” he stated.
Grant Goldsberry, a parent and physician from Alleman, said that school choice is one of the most significant civil rights issues of the day.
“My wife and I are both physicians. So we have the financial means to send our children to private schools. I’m a strong supporter of the STO program, which allows some disadvantaged families to choose private schools. But I would like to see all children have an all families have the right to pick the school that’s best for them,” he said. “We can’t always ensure equal outcomes. But I do believe we can ensure equity of opportunity by allowing all children to go to the school that their family decides is best for them, by not making financial means a qualification for attending private schools. We have great public schools in this state. We also have great private schools, and that should be an individual family decision, not something dictated by government or any other body. It should be a uniquely family decision for choosing what’s best for that individual child.”
Dave Daughton, with Rural Schools Advocates of Iowa, opposed the bill.
“We feel like every time a student walks out the door to go somewhere else, whether it’s out of state to another school or to a private school that takes away funds for our school district. Over 90 percent of our kids are educated in the public school system,” he said.
Daughton admitted that most rural schools likely wouldn’t feel an impact from this bill in the immediate future. “As far as rural schools, a lot of them are not going to be impacted immediately. But we’re concerned about what could happen down the road and adding people to this, and taking more funds away,” he explained.
Dr. Stuart Juarez, the secondary principal at Joshua Christian Academy, who spoke in support of the bill, said more time, not more money is the answer for schools.
“Students learn when time is given to them. Students are motivated when they are given the time by a teacher who has the time to say, ‘look, come in during my off-hour that I have, my planning hour. Come in, and I can give you a couple extra minutes,'” he said.
Juarez said that does not happen in larger public school districts, noting that bigger classrooms do not promote learning.
Another parent, Shanda Carstens from Panora, opposed the bills saying ESAs is like the government picking winner and losers if schools don’t operate by the same rules. She also stated that the legislation could lead to the decline of rural schools.
A Dowling Catholic High School senior spoke in favor of the bill. She said her family was financially able to make that choice and thought other families should have the same opportunity to choose what is right for them.
Trish Wilger from Iowa Alliance for Choice in Education said compared to what the state spends for K-12 funding, this bill doesn’t represent much money.
“This bill gives choice to a handful of parents at a handful of schools. The LSA is quoted it as $1 to $3 million. When you’re looking at spending nearly $6 billion on education in Iowa, it’s a drop in the bucket,” she said.
The subcommittee also heard from another Dowling Catholic High School senior and an employee at a School Tuition Organization who supported the bill.
Drew Klein, with Americans for Prosperity, also spoke in favor of the bill.
“I think we all agree that smaller class sizes would be great. I think we can all agree that we should strive for greater student achievement in every classroom setting, every education setting. I think we would all agree that we would love to see teacher pay increase in the state of Iowa. I think we all hold it as a reasonable goal to empower parents to make the best decisions for their kids. And if those are things that we all agree on, then we move the bill forward because the research says that all of those things can be produced by greater choice in education,” he said.
State Rep. RasTafari Smith, D-Waterloo, did not sign the bill. He questioned the legislation since private schools do not have to follow the same rules as public schools and the fact they could deny students from enrolling.
“I don’t believe this legislation allows for equitable access for all students across our state on a regional basis,” he said.
“The phrase that keeps coming back to me is if we’re going to want taxpayer dollars, we also owe the taxpayers the responsibility, accountability and transparency, to see where their money is going, how their dollars are being used,” Smith added.
State Rep. Henry Stone, R-Forest City, supported the bill.
“There are a ton of great lobbyists up here that provide a wealth of information for us, right, there are always going to be two sides. But at the end of the day, it’s about what’s good for our children,” he said.
Refuting some of the opposition’s complaints, Stone also pointed out that 43 private colleges and universities in Iowa receive public money already through the Iowa Tuition Grant program.
He also explained that public school districts could also turn away open enrollment requests due to class or building capacity.
“So we can’t use open enrollment as an excuse to deny parents their right to choose where they send their child to school. So I urge all of our legislators and everyone in this room to take a long look at exactly what we’re fighting for. Are we fighting for the views of our clients? Or are we fighting for our children?” Stone asked.
State Rep. John Wills, R-Spirit Lake, also supported the legislation and pointed out that those who oppose the bill rarely mention kids.
“If we keep doing the same thing that we’ve always done, we’re gonna keep getting what we got. So we’ve got to do something different, we’ve got to do something that changes the way that we do things in Iowa,” he said.
Wills stated that school choice is local control as it gives parents the ability to make the educational choice that is right for their child.
“We’ve got to look at the state of Iowa and say, we need to be number one, not because we want to be number one, but because our kids deserve it. And guess what? It doesn’t affect the kid today. And education today affects generations tomorrow. So we need to get back to that. And I’m willing to do whatever we can to do that. You know what? I’ve tried six years I’ve been in this in this House. We’ve tried spending, and we still have the same problems. So let’s do something different,” he said, concluding the meeting.
Listen to the subcommittee meeting below:
Before the subcommittee meeting on HSB 243, a subcommittee consisting of State Reps. Skyler Wheeler, R-Orange City, Chad Ingels, R-Randalia, and Mary Mascher, D-Iowa City, approved HSB 242, the charter school bill. This legislation is also part of Gov. Kim Reynolds’ Students First Initiative.
The Iowa Senate passed Reynolds’ initiative in one large bill, but the Iowa House Republicans are taking a piecemeal approach offering individual pieces of legislation.