Scarce funding could hobble school choice legislation in Iowa

By James Q. Lynch from The Gazette

DES MOINES — Expanding school choice for parents who want options to public schools has gained momentum, the chairman of the Iowa House Education Committee said Wednesday. – January 25, 2017

However, Rep. Walt Rogers, R-Cedar Falls, and Republican Gov. Terry Branstad cautioned that it will be difficult to expand those options for families who enroll almost 33,000 students in nonpublic K-12 education this year if it will cost the state. That doesn’t include home-schooled students, many who are not subject to reporting requirements.

They made their comments during a United for School Choice rally in Des Moines.

“We’re looking at all options from a pilot to full implementation,” Rogers said.

A pilot project would be relatively inexpensive, he said, “but full implementation would be quite costly.”

Branstad has recommended a 2 percent increase in supplemental state aid to schools — about $70 million next year — and protected K-12 funding from $117 million in midyear budget cuts expected to be approved by lawmakers in the coming days.

Rogers described his school choice legislation as being in “formation, pre-drafting,” but it could include state-funded education savings accounts, in which state dollars are earmarked for parents to use toward education costs such as private-school tuition.

Sen. Brad Zaun, R-Urbandale, has proposed an educational savings account bill and Rep. John Wills, R-Spirit Lake, has proposed school vouchers, but only in cases of students attending “persistently lowest-achieving schools.”LIKE WHAT YOU’RE READING?
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That’s what Leah Davenport of Ankeny would like to see. A board member at Ankeny Christian Academy where four of her five sons attend school, Davenport would like the Legislature approve legislation that would allow her family to set aside money to pay tuition at the private school.

“I hope to see continued opportunities for school choice,” she said at the rally at the State Historical Building near the Capitol.

Student Tuition Organizations, which give people a tax credit for contributing to funds that provide grants to private school students, have helped, Davenport said, but educational savings accounts would give her family another broader option, she said, for putting money into the children’s education.

Drew Klein of Americans for Prosperity said ESAs would allow parents, not politicians, to decide how education dollars would be spent.Vouchers, or state-funded scholarships that pay for students to attend private schools, aren’t a part of the conversation so far, said House Speaker Linda Upmeyer, R-Clear Lake.

“I don’t hear that word,” she said.

However, Rogers concedes that’s a matter of semantics. He talks of the Legislature approving “some type of parental choice in education bill.”

That could include what others might call vouchers, but he intentionally doesn’t use the word because “it’s really about parental choice in using their dollars for educating their kids.” Whatever it’s called, it would be a system allotting a certain amount of dollars to parents to use for educating their children regardless of what school they attend. It could apply to home-schooled students as well.

Democrats and public school advocates have opposed such programs because typically they sap funding from public schools.

l Comments: (319) 398-8375; james.lynch@thegazette.com

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