Reichman says bill won’t have big impact locally, but superintendents disagree
BY CHUCK VANDENBERG
DES MOINES – The Iowa Senate passed a bill down party lines Wednesday night that would provide private school scholarships allowing low-income families access to a greater choice of schools.
Senate Bill 2369 passed 31-18 with Democrats voting against the measure and one Republican, Sen. Annette Sweenery R-Alden joining the opposition. District 42 Sen. Jeff Reichman, who represents Lee County, voted in favor of the proposal.
The bill carries Gov. Kim Reynolds’ push to create a “Student First Scholarship Program” authorizing up to 10,000 scholarships per year.
Scholarships would be divided between families at or below 400% of the federal poverty guideline, which is about $106,000 for a family of four according to the U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services, and families with students on an individualized education program.
The state would fund the scholarships using 70% of the per-pupil funding that the student’s public school would typically receive. Reynolds’ office estimates that would be about $5,360 per student. The remaining 30% would go into a fund to pay for shared services such as counseling, administration, mental health services, and school resource officers.
But Reichman said the bill wouldn’t have a large impact locally because Lee County doesn’t have the capacity for a large transition.
“It’s not going to hurt our schools,” Reichman said Wednesday night after the vote. “There’s not a capacity for it. We have one private school in Holy Trinity and I think one Christian school in Keokuk.”
Reichman said the bill was bipartisan on many levels, but that spirit gets lost when you talk about expanding open enrollment or the scholarships.
“I hope people understand it’s not our districts here at home. There are districts that have some really poor families and that’s it. You have to be at 400% of the national poverty level to qualify for these,” he said.
He said State Sen. Amy Sinclair R-Allerton, who managed the bill on the Senate floor, said in her closing statement on the bill that families with the means to enroll students in private schools are doing it. But those without the means can’t.
“These are poor people stuck in an environment they can’t get out of. It’s racist at worst and class warfare at best,” Reichman said.
Central Lee Superintendent Dr. Andy Crozier disagreed with that assessment.
“We’ve always had school choice,” he said. “Central Lee has 400 students open enrolled in our district and although we’re collaborative on a lot of things, as districts we’re extremely competitive for students. They have a choice.”
Crozier, who said he doesn’t oppose a voucher system on the merits, said this bill creates an uneven playing field.
“This creates systems with two different sets for rules. Private schools have no public board meetings. They don’t have to post staff salaries, no achievement scores,” Crozier said. “They’re not held to the same accountability. It’s not same playing field.”
He said legislators told public schools this year in budget discussions there wasn’t funding for more than 2.5% growth, but this bill creates a unilateral system at a cost of about $50 million.
Superintendent Dr. Erin Slater, who oversees Fort Madison’s public system, also said the bill would have an immediate impact on public schools.
“Private school scholarships, which decrease enrollment in public schools, will have a negative financial impact on the public school system. The state financial formula, which is essentially kids x state amount for school districts, is impacted when either or both of those numbers change. Less students and/or lower (Supplemental State Aid) amounts both negatively effect the resources a public school system has to utilize to educate public school children,” she said.
“The philosophy and purpose behind the bill is implementing a statewide law which is an intentional statement on public education.”
The state’s non-partisan Legislative Services Agency has projected that if all scholarships are utilized it will cost the state about $55 million initially funded by the 70% formula. The 30% remaining is estimated at $24 million the first year, for a total cost of about $79 million.
“That tells me right there that their priorities are not public schools right now, which is disappointing as a superintendent of public schools.”
Reynolds said Wednesday night that the bill shows lawmakers are listening to parents.
“The Senate made clear tonight that parents matter. Iowans want and deserve school choice and educational freedom for their children and I urge the House to get this across the finish line and send a bill to my desk,” she said.
“If education truly is the great equalizer, we should create opportunities for more families to provide their children with the education choice that’s best for them. That’s exactly what this legislation does.”
Reichman pointed to dropouts in Des Moines as an example of why the scholarship program is needed.
“This is targeted at 755 students in Des Moines who dropped out of a failing school, with a failing superintendent,” Reichman said.
“That system failed those students, who the overwhelming majority were minorities on reduced or free lunch. Those people are going to be disadvantaged forever, by not being able to finish their education.”
Crozier said that shows the issue is a political one and not an educational one.
“A lot of this stems from schools in the Des Moines metro that legislators have wanted to go to war with, and all the other schools across the state are caught in the middle,” he said.
The bill also contains transparency language that requires schools to post curriculum materials, library catalogs, and flagging content that qualifies as sexually explicit. The House passed a similar transparency bill Tuesday night, but it did not include the private scholarship program.
Reichman said he’s shown some content from books to many people who contest the bill and only one person didn’t have a change of heart. But Crozier said the tightening is unnecessary at a time when hiring is already difficult.
“The transparency bill is an unneeded burden on public teachers when it’s tough enough to incentivize people to go into the profession,” Crozier said.
“In six years, not one person has questioned curriculum. We’ve had parents come to us and talk about things, but this is a fabricated issue of the political system.”
Slater said this is another step of distrust in the public system and it will affect teacher retention.
“As I complete my 30th year in education, I have seen a significant shift in respect and trust in the profession of educating youth. That is disheartening. Choosing to be in education is because of the opportunity to make a difference in our future…our kids. The shift has created shortages in teacher positions not only locally but nationwide.”