FM school board voices opposition to school choice bill

Santiago advocates for joint statement from county's public schools


FORT MADISON -  A Fort Madison school board member is advocating for a full-throated unified effort against a school choice bill that's being touted as a priority in the Iowa Legislature.

Board member Mio Santiago, the board's designated legislative liaison, told the group at Monday night's regular meeting that the move could cost the state $300 million by the end of the third year of the program. He said some are saying upwards of $900 million.

"Imagine if they increased public school funding by a fraction of that amount - the great things we could do," Santiago said.

Santiago said the first year minimal impact even if no student were to leave a public school in the state is $39.6 million.

The program offers families in the state $7,600 per student in public-funded scholarships. It also offers public schools $1,205 for each student that open enrolls out of the public system into private schools.

The program was unveiled in Governor Kim Reynolds' Condition of the State Address as the newly re-elected Republican doubled down on previous efforts to create voucher programs. The program is phased in over three years.

The first year all public school students including incoming kindergartners would be eligible for the program. Current private school students would be eligible if the families are under 300% of the federal poverty guidelines, or about $83,000 for a family of four.

The second year increases the income guidelines to 400% of poverty guidelines or about $111,000 per family of four. The third year would open the program to all students in the state.

Estimates out of the governor's office indicate that 14,000 students would take part in the program in year one, an additional 6,000 in year two, with close to 20,000 additional in year three. There are no caps on the number of scholarships.

Those opposing the move say it could cost the state $300 million.

"The governor's budget estimates that approximately 14,000 students will take advantage of a voucher at a cost of $106.2 million in year one," Santiago said.

"This is one of those things we've been hearing about for several years and we're fortunate as a public school that the legislature has not voted vouchers in. It seems it's a little bit different makeup with the supermajority. It seems like it will be a lot closer now than we ever have been."

Santiago encouraged the board and members of the public to reach out to local legislators, including State Rep. Martin Graber (R-Fort Madison) and State Sen. Jeff Riechman (R-Montrose), to voice their opinion on the matter.

He also suggested that all three public school superintendents from Fort Madison, Keokuk, and Central Lee get together and issue a joint statement to the the legislators spelling out their opposition to the measure.

"We need to let Mr. Graber know with one voice that the public schools in southeast Iowa think this is a bad idea," he said.

"Where we have to take our stand is in the House. They felt they have all the votes but they haven't voted yet. That's where we've been able to stave it off year after year after year."

Board member Dianne Hope said nothing in the bill requires any private schools to accept every student, nor requires them to hold open meetings, or requires them to adhere to the same test assessments and standards.

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