Rural Iowa should brace itself for school vouchers

It won’t be long before empty parking lots near the Iowa Capitol become as hard to find as a compromise between Democrats and Republicans.

The Legislature returns to Des Moines on Jan. 9, more firmly under Republican control than it was on May 24, when this year’s session ended.

With their strong showing in this month’s election, Republicans can likely pick up where they left off six months ago. For those living in rural Iowa, on Gov. Kim Reynolds’ to-do list is creating taxpayer-funded coupons to help parents pay for tuition at private K-12 schools.

During the 2021 and 2022 Legislature sessions, Reynolds unsuccessfully pushed for the voucher program, which she prefers to describe as a scholarship program or a way to give parents school choice.

The issue is close to heart for many rural Iowans, both Ds and Rs, because of concerns about the health of their local public school. Rural Iowa is declining in population, and the quality of local schools is a key factor in communities’ ability to attract young families and keep their children close to home after graduation.

People in rural Iowa should buckle up as the 2023 Legislature session could make a quick decision on private school vouchers.

Reynolds has a history of being stymied by Republicans in her own house, who dug in at her heels on the issue. But in the days leading up to the June primary, she took the unusual step of announcing her support for Republican challengers running against a handful of incumbent House Republicans who oppose coupons.

One of Reynolds’ most prominent targets for retaliation was Rep. Dustin Hite, a New Sharon Republican who chaired the House Education Committee. He opposes coupons because his constituents have concerns about coupon effectiveness in places like Keokuk County, where the three public school districts each have fewer than 600 students.

Hite was one of a handful of incumbent Republican lawmakers who lost the primary after Reynolds backed their opponents.

Rep. Dennis Bush, a Cherokee Republican, was another Republican opponent of coupons who was unseated in the primary. He told reporters after his defeat: “I think it’s going to have a chilling effect on any future governor’s bills when lawmakers try to represent their districts when they know the governor might come out just because they didn’t vote for them.” have suggestion on an invoice.”

Rep. Jon Thorup, a Republican from Knoxville, was another lawmaker targeted by Reynolds. He told reporters that without significant changes, private school vouchers would eventually lead to the closure and merger of some smaller school districts.

The voucher proposal would have real consequences for public schools.

Under the plan discussed this year, $55 million of state tax money would be diverted from K-12 public schools and channeled into private schools. It’s hard to call this a plus for public schools.

Parents would receive about $5,500 in stipends for each child who enrolls in a private school instead of a public school. The proposal would cap the number of grants at 10,000. But don’t be fooled into thinking this is the maximum number of coupons that will be given out.

There are approximately 40,000 students in Iowa’s private K-12 schools. No one believes that the parents of these children would not pressure lawmakers to expand a voucher program to make the $5,500 scholarships available to their children as well.

You can look at what happened in Ohio to see how a coupon program would expand. In Ohio, that state’s voucher program started in 2005 with 3,000 students. It now offers private school vouchers to 69,000 students, costing the taxpayer $628 million annually.

The governor likes to talk about giving parents “school choice” for their children. That is a laudable goal.

But not all parents can afford private schooling, even with an Iowa taxpayer voucher. 42 of Iowa’s 99 counties have no private schools and the vouchers could not be used for transportation.

There is another important factor that influences the actual availability of “choice of school”. Unlike public schools, private schools do not have to accept every student who wishes to enroll. Private schools don’t have to operate with the same openness and transparency that public schools have to have.

Private schools can choose which students they accept. This may be based on the prospective student’s religion, the child’s sexual orientation, their ability to speak English, the presence of intellectual disabilities, or because of behavioral problems.

Withdrawing $55 million from Iowa public schools to pay for the vouchers will have inevitable consequences for the students left behind in those classrooms.

Iowans living in rural areas, whether they’re red, blue or purple, have to settle for the future — unless they find rural Republican lawmakers willing to take a principled stance, like Dustin Hite, Jon Thorup and Dennis Bush did.

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