LEE COUNTY - Several school officials are responding to an open letter that Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds released on Friday addressing the Students First Act, which is being heavily debated as a top priority with Iowa legislators.
State Rep. Martin Graber released the following statement after a joint statement from the superintendents of the three public school in the county was issued late last week.
"Thank you for your letter of concern. I continue to research carefully and listen to all the points for and against this extremely important issue," Graber wrote in an email to Pen City Current Saturday.
On Friday, the governor submitted the following letter in its entirety:
"A strong education system is foundational to Iowa’s future, which is why school choice continues to be a priority of mine and of families across our great state.
I believe in Iowa’s public schools. Kevin and I are both products of public education. It’s the choice we made for our daughters, and it's the same path they’ve now chosen for their own children. One of our daughters is even a public school teacher.
School choice is not an anti-public-school movement. It’s pro-education, pro-student, and pro-family. And it has the potential to elevate education statewide for every student in Iowa.
As Governor, I’ve increased education funding year over year. In fact, under Republican leadership, it's grown by more than $1 billion since fiscal year 2012. And rightfully so.
Iowa’s education system is a worthy investment. But the time has come to put those dollars to work differently and deliver a bigger return for Iowans. I believe we’ll do exactly that by putting students first.
Opponents argue that public dollars belong to public schools. I see it differently. Every dollar in Iowa’s general fund was earned by hardworking, tax-paying Iowans. It’s their money and it should be used for the good of the people. In the case of education, for the good of all students.
The Students First Act proposes that “per pupil funds” — $7,598 per student next school year — which now cover a portion of the cost to educate public school students exclusively, would also be available for students who choose to attend accredited private schools. Today, that’s about 34,000 students, just six percent of all K-12 students statewide.
The plan would be phased in for private school students, based on household income over the first two years, then available for all families in year three. All incoming kindergarteners and current public school students, regardless of household income, would be eligible starting next school year.
Iowa’s public school districts will continue to receive state funding for the students they educate at the same level they do now. Together with other local, state and federal funds, public schools get more than $17,000 total per student. With the Students First Act, districts will also receive $1,205 in categorical funding for every student who lives in their school district but attends a private school. That’s new money for students they won't even teach.
It also allows public school districts the flexibility to use unspent and ongoing funds for teacher leadership and compensation, professional development, and talent and gifted programs to supplement teacher salaries instead. Today, there’s nearly $100 million in these funds that remains unused, and nearly $250 million is allocated to them annually.
To be clear, the Students First Act will not cut public school funding as opponents of this bill claim. And it won’t result in families fleeing public schools. For most Iowa families, a public education will continue to be their first choice. But for families who otherwise can’t afford a private school that may be a better fit for their children, it makes new opportunities attainable.
We’ve already demonstrated that state-funded school choice works in Iowa. The state's voluntary preschool program for 4-year-olds has been making a difference for Iowa families since 2007, and the Iowa Tuition Grant program makes our private colleges and universities more affordable for Iowa students.
But K-12 students have been left out. It’s time to change that.
Putting students first will help young Iowans reach their potential. And that’s a worthy investment in our future."
LOCAL OFFICIALS REACT
Pen City Current reached out to leaders of the school districts to ask for a response to the Governor's letter.
Dr. Andy Crozier, Superintendent of Central Lee responded with the following statement:
Lee County Students, Parents, and Community Members;
In my 12 years of serving as a superintendent, I have always stayed keenly aware of proposed legislation at the state level. I have witnessed several unpopular pieces of legislation in which local representatives have had to answer tough questions from their constituents in forums and through other communication channels. Collective bargaining, the gas tax, and the recent income tax breaks were all heavily vetted in our communities. I have never seen the governor write an open letter pleading with Iowans to support her idea.
What does this tell me? Governor Reynolds knows her idea is unpopular with the vast majority of Iowans. Unlike our local representatives, she campaigned on this issue, but she obviously fell well short on private school vouchers being a top priority for rural Iowa. At last week’s public hearing, 75 percent of those speaking and posting public comments were against the voucher bill.
Additionally, there have been hundreds of thousands of dollars come into the state to fund commercials about the school choice bill. These dollars are coming from a hedge fund billionaire in Florida, who would ultimately profit from this school choice scheme through “online charter schools.” These actors from outside the state of Iowa look to influence our decision-making. But Iowans have been very clear—public dollars should go to public schools only.
School vouchers remain unpopular in Lee County because they do not benefit rural communities. The governor proposes spending $1 billion for her school choice program over the next four years. About 90 percent of these dollars will end up in metro Iowa in Polk, Johnson, and Linn counties. Lee, Henry, Van Buren, and most other rural counties will get left behind once again.
The governor’s wealthy donors in Des Moines love this bill because it essentially gives them an additional tax break by allowing them to receive $7,800 per child to continue to send them to private schools. Without any income restrictions like previous school choice proposals, the wrong families will reap the majority of these benefits. These dollars will be lost forever in our state budget, and little will be left over to support rural communities' hospitals, EMS services, and other critical needs.
Let’s dig into a few of the details of the school choice bill. The governor claims the bill would raise teacher salaries. It does not. The governor suggests giving schools flexibility to use categorical balances for teacher salaries. Unfortunately, these balances represent one-time funds. Once schools spend them, they are gone.
For example, if we commit $200,000 from a categorical balance to teacher salaries, it works fine for one year. However, the next year, we would need to find $200,000 in the budget to make up the difference, or else make cuts. The math does not work.
Governor Reynolds has proposed providing $1,200 to public schools for every private school student enrolled. However, Central Lee has very few private school students, so like many other rural Iowa public schools, there’s little benefit to us. All this does is create the illusion that this bill actually helps rural public schools. The dollars Fort Madison, Keokuk, and Central Lee would receive is a tiny fraction of what would go to private schools like Des Moines Christian, Cedar Rapids Xavier, and Iowa City Regina. Rural Iowa loses again.
The consistent feedback public school advocates have provided regarding school choice is the need for fair play. If private schools receive public money, they should be required to meet the same standards of openness and transparency as public schools. They should be required to open their books, hold meetings in public, post student achievement scores, and offer and teach all the requirements that have been placed on public schools. This includes career and technical education, for which Central Lee and Fort Madison have become leaders statewide.
Additionally, if school choice is passed, private schools should be required to take all students. Currently, private schools are allowed to discriminate against students who don’t “fit” their system. Public schools educate all students regardless of their race, gender, and/or socio-economic status. All Iowans have the right to know how their tax dollars are being spent and ensure equal opportunity from those dollars.
Lastly, the governor has asked that this debate not be between public and private schools. Public school advocates do not want that, either. Private schools serve a need for the public, and they already receive public money with transportation assistance and private school tax credits, among others.
It’s important to point out that public schools have been subject to political attacks, especially over the past several years. This has been difficult on our teachers and staff here in Central Lee, along with districts statewide. This lack of trust and support trickles down and erodes the relationship between classrooms and parents.
I have the privilege of seeing how hard our public school teachers work each day. I witness the time they put in beyond their contract hours during the school year and throughout the summer. I see what they do outside of the classroom to grow and improve professionally. I also hear their frustrations when they get zero respect from the legislature, the business community, and others. It is exhausting for educators, as politicians and the media have made it part of our culture to continuously question and criticize the work of educators. It’s no wonder why there are dramatically fewer people going into education. It has truly become a thankless job that deserves much more respect.
If Governor Reynolds truly loves Iowa’s public schools, she needs to do more than just use her words. We are looking for actions that support public schools. We have read stories from Nebraska and South Dakota on how their governors—both Republican—are fully funding public schools and supporting them more than ever. Here in Iowa, it’s quite the opposite. This school choice bill is another way our state is prioritizing private schools over the vast majority of students who attend public schools.
Dr. Andy Crozier,
Superintendent of Schools
Central Lee CSD
FORT MADISON COMMUNITY SCHOOL DISTRICT
Dr. Erin Slater, Superintendent at FMSCD issued the following statement over the weekend.
"A state’s public’s funds are intended for public uses: public libraries, public education and infrastructure improvements like roads and bridges. Diverting money away from public schools does not meet that public intent. The costs for this bill which was offered by the governor’s office, over $900 million in three years, could be utilized in the public school system for public school students.
School choice is already offered in Iowa through multiple facets including open enrollment, virtual schools, Home School Assistance Programs, and private school tuition tax credits.
Private schools are allowed to deny a student’s admission. Public schools educate everyone. Private schools are unaccountable for state testing, state curriculum requirements, public fiscal reporting, and public open meeting laws. Public schools must meet all these criteria. They are not optional. Funding an inequitable comparison does not invoke competition.
With a state-backed guaranteed funding stream, new start up private schools will begin to further drive decreases for public and current private schools alike.
HOLY TRINITY CATHOLIC
HTC Principal Craig Huebner issued the following statement on Monday.
"In response to Governor Renolds' statements and stance on education, I have to agree that we need a robust education system to ensure the future of Iowa.
This future needs to focus on the education of all students in our state. As educators, we all entered the profession to do what is best for our students. I believe the plan the Governor has proposed will establish a quality education for all students no matter the location.
As a person who attended both a public and private school as a child and taught in both the public and private schools, I can see the value in both systems. In the end, our goals are the same: to provide the best education for all students in our system. The proposal from the Governor would allow non-public schools to expand the opportunities for students they work with. It also gives families the opportunity to choose a school setting they feel best fits their child.
Holy Trinity Catholic prides itself on staying on the cutting edge of education. We follow all of the state guidelines, take state tests, report data to the state, and serve students of all needs and economic backgrounds.
The bottom line is that if we want all students in the state of Iowa to have the best education possible, then we need to fund them equally no matter where they attend school."
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