School choice proposals likely in Iowa

By Erin Murphy of The Gazette-Lee Des Moines Bureau

DES MOINES — How the state funds Iowa’s K-through-12 public schools could be altered dramatically this year when Republicans assume control of the legislative agenda. – January 4, 2017

Republicans, who for the first time in 20 years will hold the governor’s office and majorities in the Iowa House and Iowa Senate, are poised to consider legislation that would expand so-called school choice programs that give families greater flexibility to enroll children in private schools, often at the expense of funding to public schools, and to alter the timeline for when the state sets public school funding levels.

Conservative legislators long have supported school choice programs, but have been unable to get any passed into law because of opposition from Democrats, who in recent sessions held the majority in the Senate.

But in the wake of the Nov. 8 election, Republicans have complete control of the Statehouse and school choice programs are sure to be on the legislative agenda.

“I’m pretty confident we’re going to come out of this session with some type of school choice bill that hopefully is signed” into law by the governor, said Rep. Walt Rogers, R-Cedar Falls, the new chairman of the House education committee.

Rogers said proposals could range from a pilot project to something more substantial, like education savings accounts in which state dollars are earmarked for parents to use toward costs like private-school tuition.

“I’m a believer in them,” Rogers said. “I’m taking an approach of, let’s look at everything and see what we can afford, see what type of transition period it would take to implement more choice for parents. That’s where I’m at. I’m willing to take a look at everything. I’m going to give everything a fair hearing in education.”

Democrats and public school advocates have opposed such programs because typically they result in less state funding for public schools.

Supporters of educational savings account say they give families the freedom to determine which school is best for their children.

“An ESA program will allow true universal choice and inject the positive force of market competition into the Iowa educational system,” Susan Fenton, a lobbyist for Iowa Advocates for Choice in Education, told Gov. Terry Branstad at a recent public hearing on the budget.

Branstad, whose three children attended Catholic schools in the Des Moines area, told reporters after the hearing he is a “strong supporter” of private schools but said there are “a lot of issues” to consider.

A tight state budget has led Republican leaders to say they plan to call for a 2-percent increase for public school funding for the 2017-2018 school year.

If approved, it will be the seventh time in eight years state funding to public schools has increased only by roughly 2 percent or less.

Funding increases dipped to those levels only four times in the previous 38 years.

“It is a fact that these are the worst six years in Iowa history for education funding,” said Sen. Jeff Danielson, D-Waterloo. “There are a lot of us who believe that at a time when we had the resources, at least a cost of living (increase) averaged out over those six years was reasonable. That was not achieved. I don’t think we have invested in education like it matters to our future, and it does.”

Mark Smith, leader of the minority House Democrats, said a greater percentage of state funding should be going to public education.

“We haven’t had our priorities straight, which is to put Iowa’s children first,” Smith said. “I would hope that the (funding increase), because of underfunding, would not ever be below 4 percent this year, but clearly I’m very doubtful that we will get to that point.”

Republicans also may repeal the portion of Iowa law that requires legislators to set school funding levels more than a year before schools set their budgets. The law — which does not include any punitive measure for when legislators fail to adhere by the timeline — was written to ensure public school funding gets the first bite of the state budget pie and so schools can plan their own budgets.

Republicans who want to repeal the measure say it is difficult to predict state revenues that far in advance, so setting such a big budget number so early is bad practice.

Linda Upmeyer, a Republican from Clear Lake who is going into her second session as Speaker of the House, said schools still could get their state funding numbers first and early if legislators act swiftly during the session.

Iowa’s legislative sessions begin in early January, and schools must present a certified budget by mid-April.

“I think if you’re setting (school funding levels) in the first 30 days (of the session), you’re still getting it done early,” Upmeyer said. “The whole goal is so we can actually deliver on what we promise. And we’re committed to that.”

Rod Boshart of The Gazette and Christinia Crippes of the Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier contributed to this report.

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