Washington Evening Journal
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Washington, IA 52353
FAIRFIELD – Nearly all of the 90 minutes of Saturday’s Legislative forum in Fairfield were devoted to discussing education.
Education has been top of mind at the Iowa Capitol this month ever since Gov. Kim Reynolds announced “school choice” as one of her top legislative priorities, including a plan that would direct more tax dollars to private schools.
According to Erin Murphy of The Gazette Des Moines Bureau, the proposal would offer $7,590 to any Iowa student who wishes to attend a private school, which they can use toward purchasing tuition, textbooks, or other classroom materials. The program would be phased in over three years, starting with kindergartners and then expanding to older students until being available to all K-12 students in the third year. The program is expected to cost about $341 annually.
All three of the state legislators who appeared at Saturday’s Fairfield Area Chamber of Commerce forum at the Jefferson County Fairgrounds spoke extensively about their thoughts on the proposal, and about education in general. While Iowa Reps. Helena Hayes and Jeff Shipley mentioned the legislation in their opening remarks, Iowa Sen. Adrian Dickey used his introduction to rebut what he believed were falsehoods being spread about the bill.
Dickey said he was taken aback by arguments from those who say public funds should only go to public entities. He said that’s not how programs like food stamps or Medicare work, where the recipient of the benefit can use the money to buy goods and services from private businesses. He also said it wasn’t true that public funds can’t go toward religious organizations, since things like Medicare and Medicaid can be used at religious hospitals.
Anticipating objections to the bill from people worried about taking money from public schools, Dickey said that public schools that follow state law won’t have to worry about losing students, because parents won’t pull their kids out. He said that some school districts had been teaching critical race theory and allowing “porn in classrooms,” against state law.
Dickey said he, his parents and his children all attended Pekin Community Schools, and he would not do anything that would hurt his local school. He said the main beneficiaries of this legislation would be children in urban areas whose public schools are “failing our children.”
Fairfield Superintendent Laurie Noll was the first to ask a question, and took issue with the notion that critical race theory is being taught in Iowa schools. Dickey claimed some schools had bragged about getting around Iowa’s anti-CRT law by simply calling CRT something else.
Noll asked the three legislators why this bill from Gov. Reynolds was on such a “fast track” when in most years the Legislature takes months to finalize its Supplemental State Aid (SSA) for school districts.
Shipley said that, by passing this bill first, it could allow the state to devote more money to allowable growth for SSA. Furthermore, he said this bill is just one of several pieces of legislation the Legislature hopes to discuss this term.
Noll said she worried about whether the schools receiving money would be accountable, and worried about the cost of paying a third party vendor.
According to Tom Barton of The Gazette Des Moines Bureau, public schools would lose out on the per-pupil funding for any students who chooses to attend a private school. School districts, though, would get roughly $1,200 in state funding for each student who lives in the district but attends a private school, regardless of whether the student is a recent transfer or has always attended private school.
Dickey noted that the Fairfield Community School District would benefit under this plan because of the presence of the private school, Maharishi School, in Fairfield.
The next person to ask a question was Kelly Thompson, chair of the Jefferson County Republican Party. He asked the legislators why they hadn’t enacted a fine for teachers who teach critical race theory, as a way of putting teeth into the state’s anti-CRT law.
Shipley said he didn’t want to financially harm an educator. He told the audience that the state’s anti-CRT law was easy to follow, and it didn’t stop teachers from educating students about various viewpoints. It just stopped them from endorsing certain viewpoints such as “the family structure is white supremacy,” he said.
Connor Everright of KMCD asked the legislators what, if anything, they didn’t like about the proposed school choice bill. Dickey said that, the purpose of the bill is for funding to follow the student, but if a student transfers to a new school after October, the funding still goes to the school where they started the year, not their new school. He said perhaps it would be better to push that deadline to the semester break.
Shipley said that the bill only covers accredited schools, so a few small schools in Fairfield wouldn’t qualify for the funds because they are not accredited.
Mike Heaton, who ran against Shipley as a Democrat in the 2022 election, said he knows the accreditation standards well because he helped write them. He told the legislators he didn’t think it was right to withhold state funding for schools just because the legislators didn’t like their LGBT policies. Dickey disagreed, and said he felt that a school district that was not doing what its parents wanted should expect to lose students. He said that after the Fairfield Community School District adopted a policy allowing students to use the bathroom of their gender identity, Pekin gained 22-23 students in open enrollment.
Call Andy Hallman at 641-575-0135 or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org