Few Iowa families will have more choices with GOP ‘school choice’ plan

January 17, 2023 4:20 pm
Rear view of students sitting with hands raised in classroom

A teacher stands in front of a classroom as students raise their hands. (Photo by Getty Images)

Iowa Writers 'Collaborative. Linking Iowa readers and writers.Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds says her plan to use taxpayer money to pay for private schooling gives people a choice to educate their kids where they want.

But that’s not what her plan says. Just look at the details: Only certain families with kids in public schools will get that choice.

What this plan really does is pay people who already are sending their kids to private schools.

The governor’s plan would pay families about $7,600 per child for private school expenses. There are income limits to qualify in the beginning. But pretty quickly, taxpayer money would be given to anybody who can make that choice.

But what about the people who live in counties that don’t have private schools?

Forty-one counties in Iowa have no private schools, according to the group Common Good Iowa. Another 23 counties only have one private school.

What choice do those kids and their parents have?

Not much.

What Reynolds’ plan really does is take their tax money and send it to families who live somewhere else.

I’d hate to be the legislator from rural Iowa who has to explain to parents why their money is being shipped to places with choices, while they have none.

Rural or urban, though, even the governor’s own proposal acknowledges relatively few people will get this money. About 33,000 Iowa kids go to private schools now, and the governor says when her plan is phased in, that number will nudge up to about 38,000.

That’s not much of a change: Just 5,000 kids.

Meanwhile, approximately 500,000 Iowa kids will remain in underfunded public schools.

Do the math: Her plan only pays for 1% of Iowa kids to go from public to private school, but the costs balloon to roughly $340 million a year when phased in – or 9% of the basic state aid going to public schools now.

Why so expensive?

Because most of the money isn’t going to people so they can make a choice; it’s going to people who already are making it.

In previous years, the governor’s plan limited these savings accounts to people with kids in three dozen schools whose performance put them on a watch list. Then it was for people who were income limited or those with special needs.

The idea, they said, was to help kids who didn’t have the money to make a choice. (But even then, it wasn’t much of a choice because the saving accounts weren’t big enough in many cases to pay the expenses, and some kids wouldn’t be accepted.)

These facts may be why House Republican leaders have set up a special committee to push this plan, where doubting legislators are cut out of the loop. The House is where Reynolds’ previous proposals have been stymied.

The plan also is being moved quickly. That’s because the governor knows the longer this lingers, the better people will be able to grasp the consequences. The longer a light is shined on it, the more people realize this plan isn’t supposed to enable them to make a choice, but to pay for people who already have made it.

In the meantime, it sucks money away from the vast majority of public-school students who will remain in classrooms where districts already struggle with rising costs while the state turns a blind eye; in schools where our state spends less per pupil than most other states in the country; in schools where teachers whose salaries lag will eventually go to places where their skills are better rewarded and they aren’t scorned in service of the culture wars.

What’s more, the major costs of this plan will kick in at about the same time that the governor’s nearly $2 billion income-tax cut will be exacting its biggest drain on the state’s $8 billion budget. This plan, too, provides the biggest benefit to the select few. (The typical Iowa family will get about $600 from the tax cut, while the average millionaire household will collect $67,000.)

What will happen if this new tax plan doesn’t produce the promised economic boom to transform Iowa? None of the others did.

What will happen to public education then?

What will happen in the classrooms where those 9 out of 10 Iowa kids remain?

The governor made it clear last election year that she’d go after House Republicans who didn’t line up behind her education plan. And some got knocked out of the Legislature.

I’m sure some Republicans with doubts are looking over their shoulders. That’s the price of political intimidation. But I also wonder how they’ll fare with an electorate that realizes the only choice Reynolds’ plan provides is this: Send your tax money to pay for the choices of other people, while the kids you represent have none.

It’s not much of a choice. But it’s not intended to be.

Ed Tibbetts’ Along the Mississippi newsletter is on Substack. This column is published here through the Iowa Writers’ Collaborative.

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Ed Tibbetts
Ed Tibbetts

Ed Tibbetts, of Davenport, has covered politics, government and trends for more than three decades in the Quad-Cities. A former reporter and editorial page editor for the Quad-City Times, he now is a freelance journalist who publishes the Along the Mississippi newsletter on Substack. He is a member of the Iowa Writers’ Collaborative.