Parents, educators speak out on private school scholarship proposal

By: - January 17, 2023 8:35 pm

Iowans discussed their views on the governor’s proposed private school scholarship program at a public hearing Jan. 17, 2023. (Photo by Robin Opsahl/Iowa Capital Dispatch)

About 100 Iowans, most of them parents or educators, lined up Tuesday to speak during a public hearing about Gov. Kim Reynolds’ controversial plan to fund scholarships for private school students.

Republicans are moving fast on House File 68, which would create an education savings account (ESA) program to cover students’ private-school tuition and other expenses. 

While supporters say the legislation gives families more educational options, opponents told legislators that those expanded options are not available to all students.

Jazlyn Fitz, a mother of a Des Moines Public Schools student, said she has had a great experience with the district as a parent. But even if she didn’t, she would not be able to take her child to a private school: Her son is autistic, and would be denied admission because of the additional educational needs he requires.

“In my mind, vouchers are discriminatory towards disabled children,” she said, “Because there is no guarantee or mandate that they will be accepted and properly supported in private schools.”

Josh Bowar, the head of Sioux Center Christian School, said the criticisms leveled against private schools aren’t true. Two-thirds of the families who attend his school make less than 400% below the federal poverty level, and 20% receive special education services, he said.

Bauer also disputed the characterizations that the proposal, which drops income limits in the third year, would benefit rich Iowans, and that public funds shouldn’t go toward private schools.

“Actually, as we’ve heard, finances are a barrier for many,” Bauer said. “Actually, public dollars are taxpayer dollars that come from private pockets.”

Other Iowans said while not all private schools discriminate, some do. LGBTQ students and others do not have guaranteed acceptance to private institutions, nor do many have the anti-discrimination policies in place which public schools are required to have, advocates with groups like Iowa Safe Schools and One Iowa said.

If private schools receive public money, they should be held to the same standards as public schools, Keenan Crow, One Iowa director of policy and advocacy said. The organization found 75% of Iowa’s accredited non-public schools were “willing” to discriminate against LGBTQ Iowans in some way, according to a 2020 study of 176 private school policy handbooks. That could mean denying LGBTQ students or families are not welcome, not hiring LGBTQ staff or just reserving the right to discriminate. 

“Even though these non-public schools have every right to teach their religious principles as they see fit, there is no obligation for taxpayers to promote institutions that intend to permit discrimination, that will not take all comers,” Crow said.

But conservative parents said public schools have a political agenda as well. Jennifer Turner said she was already using her son’s 529 Plan savings account, which her parents opened for his college tuition, on his middle and high school tuition at a private school because of her disapproval of the public school education her son received.

She said that public school curriculum includes “comprehensive sex-ed,” “social justice learning” and subjects that undermine some parents’ “conservative, Christian” values.

“Academics are clearly not a priority,” Turner said.

Supporters and opponents sparred over the status of public opinion about the proposal. Opponents pointed to a 2022 Des Moines Register/Mediacom Iowa Poll that showed 52% of respondents opposed putting funds for public schools toward private school and homeschooling costs for parents.

But supporters of the bill cited a 2021 study from Iowa Alliance for Choice in Education, a school choice organization, which found 67% of Iowans support ESAs when provided an explanation of the program.

It was the second chance for Iowans to speak directly on the legislation. A Senate Education subcommittee discussed a companion bill and moved forward last week. 

More than 100 people lined up throughout the Capitol for a turn to speak at the 90-minute hearing, along with those who grabbed the limited seats in the hearing room. In addition, people posted more than 1,000 responses on the Legislature’s website.

Outside the room, folding chairs were set up in the Capitol rotunda where families and advocates sat to watch a recording of what was happening in the packed meeting room down the hall. Angella Welch, a DMPS teacher and West Des Moines school district parent, said the crowd was very “pro-public school.”

“I think that shows what our state’s moving towards and what the majority of people are leaning towards,” Welch said.

Correction: A previous version of this article misspelled Josh Bowar’s name. This has been corrected, in addition to including that Bowar works for Sioux Center Christian School.

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Robin Opsahl
Robin Opsahl

Robin Opsahl is an Iowa Capital Dispatch reporter covering the state Legislature and politics. Robin has experience covering government, elections and more at media organizations including Roll Call, the Sacramento Bee and the Wausau Daily Herald, in addition to working on multimedia projects, newsletters and visualizations. They were a political reporter for the Des Moines Register covering the Iowa caucuses leading up to the 2020 presidential election, assisting with the Register's Iowa Poll, and reporting on Iowa's 4th District elections.

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