Letter to the Editor: School vouchers are wrong for Iowa

To the Editor:

The Iowa Senate recently passed SF 159, which some are referring to as the school voucher bill. This bill affects education in Iowa in a variety of ways. The main provisions are to expand charter schools, expand open enrollment, and create scholarships for students who wish to attend private schools rather than public schools (also known as vouchers).

This bill may seem like it would not have much effect on school districts in the area, especially because there are no private schools in the Eastern Allamakee Community School District. That assumption is incorrect, as it is anticipated that it will have a huge effect on the budget of all public schools in the state. The Legislative Services Agency, which is a nonpartisan agency that provides budget analysis for the Iowa legislature, shows increasing negative impacts to all public school district budgets in Iowa over the next four years. There are no budget projections beyond that point.

There is clear logic as to why our local school budgets will suffer. There is one pot of money available for Iowa schools. If the money that was previously used only for public schools is now being used for private schools and students attending them, there will be less money for public schools. The effect is not limited to districts that lose students to private schools, but instead will affect every public school in the state. It will likely affect rural schools even more than urban schools because we rely so heavily on the amount of funding we receive per student. If the amount per student is reduced, it could destroy rural public schools.

Iowa has traditionally valued our public education system so much so that our schools were seen as something to be emulated by other states. Now our legislature claims that our public schools are failing and the only means to fix that failure is to create free market competition. The free market concept simply does not work in this context.

The logic behind the “free market” voucher system is flawed. Similar bills have already created issues in other states’ public education systems. We should learn from them rather than ignore them. For example, a Stanford University study completed in 2017 studied voucher programs across the country and, most notably, in Milwaukee, WI. At the time of the study, Milwaukee’s voucher system had been in place for nearly 20 years and only about 25% of Milwaukee students attended schools in their neighborhood. See “Vouchers do not improve student achievement, Stanford researcher finds,” by Carrie Spector, dated February 28, 2017. Test scores in reading and math for students at these charter schools were terrible and only improved (although insufficiently) after public accountability measures were put in place. In another example, the state of Minnesota has various charter schools. While there is no voucher program in Minnesota, the charter schools alone have created school segregation issues. The state has been engaged in a protracted lawsuit after several families challenged the structure of these charter schools, which have created more racial segregation in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area than before Brown v. Board of Education (Cruz-Guzman v. State of Minnesota), and that the racial segregation had resulted in substandard schools for those left behind.

There is no accountability for public money that goes to charter or private schools. They do not have the same audit or reporting requirements as public institutions. Many charter schools are for-profit institutions, meaning that the money that is used in a public institution purely for instructional or administrative costs would instead go into the pockets of the owners of these charter schools. If a charter school fails, it simply closes its doors, leaving its students to figure out what to do next. A public school, thankfully, does not have that option.

Public schools serve everybody, regardless of their race, creed, disability or financial means. Our K-12 public education is not a business; it is a civil right in our society. To attend a private school, students must go through an application process and be accepted. Private schools can reject student applications for a variety of reasons, including if they claim they have insufficient resources to aid a student with disabilities. And in rural Iowa, we rarely have the option to even choose a private school, especially at the high school level.

I am a proud product of rural Iowa public education and specifically of Eastern Allamakee. When my husband and I discussed moving to the area, one of my selling points to him was our school district. I know from personal experience this district is filled with passionate, educated and talented teachers, many of whom have advanced degrees. These schools gave me skills that translated into my studies at college, law school and my careers.

Our public school system isn’t failing our kids. Claiming they are failing is a disservice to those who devote their lives to educating our kids. In spite of all of the different ways public schools have been attacked and had their funding cut, the schools in our communities have prevailed and excelled. But if we push public schools to the brink, there will be no choice but for eventual failure. Rural schools will have to merge more than they have already. We will not be able to attract the teachers we want or pay them what they deserve.

We need excellent public schools in every community in Iowa, both urban and rural, so that every child gets the education they deserve. Taking tax dollars from these schools and providing them to private schools in different communities simply harms rural Iowa. What makes no sense is how cutting funding from these schools will help them and the students left behind in them. Often these schools need additional resources to deal with the challenges they are faced with; taking more resources away will only exacerbate issues.

The effect of losing our schools would be profound on the communities of New Albin and Lansing and communities all across our state. I urge you to act on behalf of our communities by reaching out to our state representative and asking her to vote no on SF 159. If the vote has already happened by the time this has published, I encourage you to reach out to her and either express your appreciation or disappointment, depending on how she chose to vote.

Betsy Whitlatch
New Albin