Washington Evening Journal
111 North Marion Avenue
Washington, IA 52353
Education, legislative officials react to Students First Act
Opinions shared within legislature, public and private schools, but not between them
DES MOINES — Iowa legislators enacted a new law early this week establishing “Education Savings Accounts,” or ESAs, as functional vouchers for students enrolling in private schools.
Advocates for the bill — called the Students First Act — included Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds, who said it would help equalize access to high quality education.
“Public schools are the foundation of our education system and for most families they will continue to be the option of choice, but they aren’t the only choice,” Reynolds said in a news release after signing the bill. “For some families, a different path may be better for their children. With this bill, every child in Iowa, regardless of ZIP code or income, will have access to the school best suited for them.”
In a speech immediately before the bill’s signing, Reynolds said it was try or die for the state’s gradually sinking education performance.
“We’re rejecting the idea that the answer to improving education is simply pumping more money into the same system, year after year, without making significant changes,” she said. “We are putting an end to the notion that competition is a zero-sum game.”
Opponents, however, say the bill’s funding will trade off with money for public schools.
“The funding for public schools over the last decade has lagged (behind) the inflation rate, or the cost of doing business of a school,” Rural School Advocates of Iowa Spokesperson Margaret Buckton said. “Our rural schools, in particular, are concerned that they won’t see adequate funding going forward, if the state takes on this financial commitment right when they’re taking on income tax cuts.”
Buckton said the bill especially jeopardized students in rural public schools, where financial resources are more constrained and private sector alternatives are further away.
“We already have a tight economy of scale, we have fewer students for rural schools … it’s harder to hire enough qualified teachers,” she said. “(Private schools) may not pay as high as some of the metro area public schools for staff, but they probably will be able to compete with our rural schools for teacher salary.”
Area legislators all voted in favor
Washington, Henry and Jefferson County legislators, all Republicans, voted in favor of the bill Monday night.
House District 92 Rep. Heather Hora, representing Washington County and part of Johnson County, has advocated for Education Savings Accounts since early in her campaign for the office. She said she was proud to vote in favor of the bill.
“Throughout my campaign I heard from many parents expressing frustrations with not having their voices heard by their public school,” she said in an email. “The Education Savings Accounts will allow these parents another option available to them if they so choose. Competition is healthy and I believe this bill will make all schools better throughout the State which will benefit all families and Iowans.”
Rep. Helena Hayes, whose district includes Mahaska, Keokuk and Jefferson counties, agreed. She called the Students First Act a “historic moment in Iowa educational history.”
“It opens up opportunities for families that were not previously available by providing options to best meet the needs of their school-age children,” she said. “This is one of many great things coming out of the Capitol this session that will be helpful for parents, children, public and private schools alike.”
In House District 87, covering parts of Henry, Jefferson and Van Buren counties, Rep. Jeff Shipley said he was “pretty shocked” with the performance of the State Board of Education, “especially when you consider the endless stream of billions of dollars over so many years.”
Shipley said the bill would benefit the state overall with minimal downsides for his own constituents.
“The effect on District 87 will be negligible because there are so few qualifying institutions in this area,” he said. “However, in the urban/suburban areas, I know this bill helps answer lots of prayers, and numerous scientific studies in areas that have enacted ‘school choice’ have shown tremendous benefit to the education system overall.”
Sen. Dawn Driscoll, whose district includes Washington, Johnson and Iowa counties, acknowledged critics’ concerns about the impact on rural schools, but said the benefits of more flexible public school spending rules — which were also included in the bill — would outweigh potential downsides.
“In rural Iowa where we have less private school options, the ESAs won’t necessarily impact our public school funds with more students opting out to private schools,” she wrote in a letter to the Union. “But the benefits for our rural public schools provides the flexibility to use unspent dollars in new ways. This flexibility will provide additional dollars aimed at our great teachers.”
Public school leaders more skeptical
Southeast Iowa’s public school district officials largely said they were dismayed by the bill’s enactment.
Joel Pedersen, superintendent of the Cardinal school district in Eldon, said he wasn’t opposed to school choice, but that the private sector competition mindset was non-applicable to education.
“We aren't afraid of competition, but competition isn't fair when the competitors play by different rules,” Pedersen said. “Since private schools are most often accredited by independent accrediting agencies and not the State of Iowa, they don't have to background check their employees, they don't have to hire licensed teachers, they don't have to accept and educate all students, and the Iowa Code doesn't require them to offer the same courses or subject them to many of the regulations that public schools are required to follow by law.”
While the Students First Act would allocate some money to public districts that lost students to private institutions, Mt. Pleasant Superintendent John Henriksen said the math didn’t quite work out.
“If, you know, the state would say … ‘We're not giving them the full tuition costs per pupil amount, you're going to get back some of it,’ that doesn't mean that our costs as a district or as an education provider go down,” he said. “I still have to run that same section of second grade, or I still have to run that same section of history, whether I have 20 kids in it or now 19 kids … just because one kid chose to go private, the cost doesn't go down.”
In Washington, Superintendent Willie Stone said he was concerned by the bill’s quick passage.
A rule change passed shortly before the bill’s debate allowed it to forego deliberation in the House Appropriations or Ways and Means committees, a move Stone said left many concerns unaddressed.
“I sat on a call last Friday with people from the governor’s office and we asked questions, and there were questions they couldn’t answer,” he said. “That’s the purpose of Appropriations, so why didn’t it go through appropriations? If the bill’s as good as they say it is, why did it have to be fast-tracked?”
Highland and WACO Superintendent Ken Crawford said he appreciated clauses in the bill that made public school spending more flexible and allowed operational sharing of staff between districts. But he was disappointed that they came in the form of a quid pro quo with the bill’s allocations to private schools.
“Things that we’ve talked about in the past that would be beneficial for Iowa schools now get wrapped up into the process of, ‘We’ll give you this, if you give us that,’” he said. “My feeling is, if those are good for education, they shouldn’t have to come with, ‘Oh, by the way, we want vouchers as well.’ I think it’s just a little bit harder politics than what Iowa is used to.”
Mid-Prairie Superintendent Brian Stone said his opinions on the bill were still formulating, in light of its quick passage. While he acknowledged the frustration of many public educators, he said it was imperative to stay engaged with legislators as other education bills move to the floor.
“There’s still other items on the docket that the legislators still need to deal with,” he said. “It’s no time to step away from the table … there’s still work to be done, and it’s still important for people to respectively hear peoples’ thinking.”
Private school admins express excitement, but acknowledge concern
At Hillcrest Academy, a private Christian school north of Kalona, Principal and Head of School Dwight Gingerich said he understood concerns about a potential funding trade off with public schools, but was optimistic about future allocations to education.
“We recognize it’s a polarizing issue,” he said. “It would be my hope (that) funds are available wherever students need them, across the board … it may seem like, to some, that this is taking away from that. I’m hopeful that’s not the case.”
Gingerich said the legislation’s quick passage left little time for conversations within the school about the expected impact on enrollment. Still, he said he expected any increase in applications to be small.
That said, the principal said the state dollars would certainly have some impact.
“We serve really a wide range of folks,” he said. “We have a free and reduced population that exceeds what many might think exists in a private school. And particularly for those families, we are appreciative that there’s assistance for them in this way.”
Richard Beall is head of school at Maharishi School in Fairfield. He said he was excited that the legislation will make the school’s unique “consciousness-based education” accessible to more families.
According to Beall’s early estimates, 40-50 students attending Maharishi School could be eligible to receive this new money from the state. Like Hillcrest, however, he said it was too soon to say how it would affect the school’s enrollment.
“We have openings at every level of the school, and welcome families to visit and get acquainted with what we have to offer,” he said.
Beall added that he hopes the public does not view this legislation as pitting private schools against public ones. In fact, he believed there was enough surplus money in the state’s general fund to cover the needs of both sectors in education.
“I attended public school and we have long had a strong, collaborative relationship with … the Fairfield Public School system,” Beall said. “While we greatly appreciate the support the [Students First Act] will provide for our institution, I hope the Governor and General Assembly also increase their investment in our public schools this legislative session.”
Beall said the bill would give parents and guardians more options to find the best fit for their children, and ultimately improve education across the state.
“I hope and trust that this new initiative — along with full support for our public schools — will ultimately serve to strengthen that most precious foundation for Iowa’s future,” he said.