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Neighbors Growing Together | Sep 25, 2018

Senate panel advances school savings accounts

Taxpayer money could be used to attend private schools
By Rod Boshart, Gazette Des Moines Bureau | Mar 26, 2018

DES MOINES — A plan to provide taxpayer-funded accounts for parents looking to enroll their kids in private schools was hailed Thursday as a viable option to spur educational choice while critics worried it would siphon money from already cash-starved public schools struggling to meet students’ needs.

Sen. Mark Chelgren, R-Ottumwa, chaired a three-member Senate Appropriations subcommittee that advanced legislation to establish education savings accounts in July 2019 using state grants of about $4,042 that parents of eligible children in grades kindergarten to 12 could use to pay costs of sending them to nonpublic schools. He said the yearly funding was about 60 percent of the $6,736 currently spent per pupil attending K-12 public schools in Iowa.

“It is a great option for families,” said Sen. Ken Rozenboom, R-Oskaloosa, a product of private schools himself, who voted to send Senate Study Bill 3206 to the full committee for further consideration.

That view was shared by Chelgren and Trish Wilger of Iowa Advocates for Choice in Education, who predicted student performance would improve with the expansion of school choices. “This doesn’t have to be an ‘us-versus-them issue,” said Wilger. “We feel this is a win-win situation for families in Iowa.”

But a majority of the speakers who showed up for the subcommittee meeting expressed misgivings about a proposal to direct scarce taxpayer dollars away from public schools to religious-based institutions not subject to the same accountability, transparency and nondiscriminatory protections.

“This is going to cause really devastating and disrupting conditions all over the state of Iowa,” said Clare Celsi, a West Des Moines member of Iowans for Public Education who is running for the Legislature in the 2018 primary. “I can’t imagine trying to predict enrollments with this type of legislation in place. It will also siphon public money from public schools.”

Others complained that public-education funding has been inadequate in part due to ongoing state budget challenges without embarking on a new initiative that could draw away even more critical resources at a time when the governor is counting on education to address a shortage of skilled workers.

“I call this the anti-Future Ready Iowa bill,” said Louisa Dykstra, a Windsor Heights parent of two kids who is a volunteer leader for Parents for Great Iowa Schools. She said preparing students for the 21st century workforce should be the policy of Iowa education policy, “not spending taxpayer money on religious education.”

Margaret Buckton, a lobbyist for the Urban Education Network and the Rural School Advocates of Iowa, said Iowa already has a competitive educational environmental with open enrollment, home school and charter and private school options that pull at least $53 million in public investments. She also noted that there are “hardly any” private schools located in Iowa’s southern tier of counties.

But Chelgren said the ESAs would open opportunities for parents who currently feel they can’t afford to send their children to a private school. He anticipated up to 3 percent of Iowa students would use the ESA option.

Under the plan, called the Iowa Student Opportunity Act, kindergarten students entering school would be eligible along with any other students who have attended a public school for the two immediately preceding semesters.

SSB 3206 calls for the state Department of Management to put money into accounts for qualifying parents who apply for the program that would be managed by a private contractor. Unused ESA funds could carry over each year and eventually be applied to higher education costs if any remained after a participating student graduates from high school.

Sen. Jeff Danielson, D-Waterloo, the only subcommittee member to oppose the bill, gave the legislation “three Fs” for offering a false choice, being fiscally irresponsible and failing Iowa’s fairness test for balancing public and private education by creating “divisions that are not necessary.”

Senate Majority Leader Jack Whitver, R-Ankeny, said the concept has strong support in his caucus and Senate President Charles Schneider, R-West Des Moines, who also chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee, is going to keep tabs on how ESAs might factor in the GOP budget plans going forward.

“That’s something that a lot of members in our caucus are passionate about and we want to give that a fair hearing and see what that will look like,” said Whitver.

“Any bills that we pass, we have to have a plan to afford them,” he added. “I know there are a lot of our members that want to see that happen, and so we’ll have to go to a full caucus and see what the caucus wants to do.”

However, the further for the legislation appears questionable in the Iowa House, where a similar measure was debated but failed to gain enough support to advance out of the House Education Committee.

“The makeup of my Education Committee is the same, so I’d have a hard time getting it through,” said chairman Rep. Walt Rogers, R-Cedar Falls, but he also left open the door to it being a part of end-of-session discussions.

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