District faces questions from proposed voucher law

Public schools currently receive state funding on a per-student basis, meaning that each year an allotted amount of money is given to public schools depending upon their student population.

Iowa Republican lawmakers have introduced an Education Savings Account, or ESA, proposal that would establish school vouchers that allow for parents to take their child’s money and decide how to spend it on education, such as tuition for private schools or homeschooling expenses.

Many are excited by the new proposal and the potential benefits that it offers. Vouchers would allow for parents to decide where to spend their educational tax dollars and provide more education options for families that struggle financially.

Governor Terry Branstad shared his support for the proposal in the Des Moines Register.

“We want to continue to provide funding for public education, but we also want to recognize that a lot of families want to have the choice of sending their children to nonpublic schools, home-schooling or virtual academies. We want to make sure all those choices are available, and are as affordable as possible.”

Still, others find the proposal to be flawed, stating that it will drain money out of Iowa’s public schools.

Junior Arlo Hettle said, “I think that it would be a better use of the government’s time, money and effort to focus on fixing the public schools that people want to leave instead of providing alternatives for those schools.”

Developing Nations teacher Jeremiah Longnecker agreed. “The more money that’s diverted from public education the less ability that we have to educate everybody. Basically what you’re doing is taking dollars away from the masses to give to a few who have chosen that public education is not the way to go, and all the sudden you’re inhibiting everybody’s education.”

However, supporters of the ESA proposal claim that vouchers will instead provide incentive for failing schools to better their facilities and compete for students. They argue that if parents could decide where to send their children, schools would compete for those students by trying to provide the best options.

Longnecker does not see the new proposal providing incentive for educators.

“It would be one thing if I thought that it was going to provide incentive for me to be a better teacher as a result of it, but that whole premise is based on the fact that people aren’t trying to be as good as they can be, and I think that’s a false premise. In a lot of schools I think that you already have people doing the best that they can. I don’t think it would change what it is that I do or what I strive to do on a daily basis in my classroom.”

There is also the concern that vouchers will create a divide between schools in a district — with the wealthy and privileged attending better off schools and the lower class left attending the remaining institutions.

Cedar Falls Mayor Jim described how this issue can be combatted through a greater sense of accountability in schools.

“Establishing vouchers will hopefully bring more accountability to whoever’s in charge because they can’t continue to create such a detriment in poor metro areas where kids are going to bad schools. Hopefully this ‘consequence’ will create a greater accountability for people.”

Ultimately, vouchers resemble the district’s current concept of open enrollment, which allows public school students to transfer to a different public school district and have state per-student dollars follow them. The only difference with vouchers would be that students could transfer to private institutions as well.

Superintendent Dan Conrad described the potential effects of the ESA proposal on the Cedar Falls School District.

“The impact the vouchers may have on our district could depend on what kinds of restrictions might be placed on how the vouchers can be used. If a parent is allowed the freedom to enroll their children into any school, without restrictions, it could result in serious overcrowding for us. We currently deny many open enrollment requests because we are already overcapacity in many of our schools, he said. “We may also see an increase in parents electing to homeschool their children. It could also impact smaller school districts who are not able to provide the educational opportunities for their students that a larger district may be have in place. Many parents might opt to send their children to schools that can offer a wide range of opportunities, including such things as Advanced Placement and college level courses, or career and technical courses not available in the smaller district.”

While the topic continues to be controversial, Iowa legislators aim to find a common ground to benefit all of the people.

“We want every student to be eligible for this program. Exactly how we get there, we’re working with legislators to figure that out,” said Drew Klein, the Iowa state director of Americans for Prosperity in an interview with the Des Moines Register. “We believe every student deserves options.”

The cost to launch an ESA program could be high, and the probability of the bill being passed remains unclear, but it is predicted that some sort of proposal, whether it be state-wide or a piloted program, will be put into effect within the next year.

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