School choice bill passes, leaving local schools to prepare for possible impact

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By Willis Patenaude, Times-Register


“What an amazing day for our children,” Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds said after signing her “school choice” legislation, the Students First Act, into law last week. 


The latest attempt by Reynolds, after failures in previous years to get similar bills passed, was accomplished after just two weeks of debate in the Iowa Legislature. House File 68 promptly made its way out of committees and to the House and Senate, and after a few more hours of debate, the House passed the bill with a vote of 55-45. Nine Republicans voted against the bill and no Democrats supported it. 


In the state senate, the bill met with less resistance, passing with a 31-18 vote, with only three Republicans standing in opposition. 


The new law, which Reynolds suggested will be “funding students instead of systems,” allows families to use the tax dollars allocated for their kids’ education, equaling about $7,600 per student, to pay for the school of their choice. It also allocates $1,205 to public schools for each student who utilizes the program to attend a private school. 


The effort, as Reynolds argued, is not to undermine public schools, which she maintained are the “foundation of our educational system,” but recognizing that public schools are not the only choice. This law gives parents the ability to choose “a different path” for their children, she said. 


One of the arguments against the bill is the cost, which was laid out by chair of the Clayton County Democrats, Brian Bruening, who voiced opposition to the bill on numerous fronts. First, on the cost, Bruening noted how “The governor’s own staff indicated this bill will cost Iowa taxpayers nearly $1 billion in four years, and another $330 million a year after that.”


Those numbers appear backed up by an analysis, which was done by the nonpartisan Legislative Services Agency, who concluded the program will cost $345 million annually by the time it’s fully phased in, which is about four years. During that four-year phase in, the state will spend roughly $879 million. 


The agency also expects public school enrollment to drop from 486,476 in fiscal year 2024 to 475,207 in fiscal year 2027. This comes at a time when enrollment is declining across the nation, as evidenced by a Wall Street Journal analysis, which found a drop in enrollment in 85 of the 100 largest school districts. 


A second issue presented by Bruening, which was mentioned in a previous article by Central Superintendent Nick Trenkamp, is the lack of private schools in Clayton County. According to Bruening, this private school dead zone means the county’s tax dollars will go to subsidize the private educations of students in large counties like Polk and Linn.


For example, Dowling High, a private Catholic high school in Des Moines, will see an influx of $10 million every year from the students it currently enrolls, with “absolutely no oversight provisions in the legislation on how these funds are spent,” Bruening said. “The bill was passed with the goal of giving students choice, completely neglecting the fact that private schools get to choose their students, often denying admission to students in need of individualized education plans.” 


Bruening is not alone in the oversight criticism, as State Auditor Rob Sand was equally concerned. In a statement released just prior to the bill becoming law, Sand said, “Whether you call them ESAs or vouchers, as Iowa’s taxpayer watchdog, I am alarmed by the intentional lack of transparency and accountability under the proposed legislation. This bill gives private schools your tax dollars, and gives you no right to know what they are doing with them.”


“With no transparency obligations, no required public audits, no public records and no public meetings, uncovering waste, fraud and abuse of your tax dollars will be much harder,” he added.


The oversight issue was also at the heart of the Central Board of Directors response after the bill passed. In a prepared statement, the directors said they “believe public tax dollars should have public oversight and accountability,” though they also states they “support a parent’s right to choose the education that is best for their child.” 


As it pertains to Central specifically and the possible impact the bill has on the school, the directors offered that, “The passing of Education Savings Accounts does not change Central’s Ideal Culture of Students, Parents, Staff and Communities working together to create a welcoming, supportive, safe, positive, student-focused environment.” 


The board added that they will “monitor the effects” of the bill.”


Superintendent Trenkamp, who voiced opposition previously, maintained this is not about a parent’s right to choose, which he fully supports. He said it’s about larger issues, including enrollment, accountability and funding for rural schools. 


In a statement released to the Central staff, Trenkamp said, “I think most, if not all of us, support a parent’s choice for the education of their child. Here at Central, we have real relationships with our parents and students. Each of you does an amazing job of trying to adapt education to meet the individual needs of our students…Passing of this bill doesn’t change our approach to this.” 


On how the bill will impact Central, Trenkamp stated, “Only time will tell the effects this bill will have on Central and Iowa’s other rural schools.”


Besides the enrollment issue, which shouldn’t impact Central in the near future due to the lack of private school options, the main area of concern for Trenkamp remains funding. 


“We have not seen funding increases over 3 percent but once in my 10 years with Central. All other costs are growing at greater than 3 percent, and a major concern is how we keep our salaries competitive with the private sector so we can not only fill positions but have quality people in those positions,” Trenkamp said.  


The law is likely to remain a hot-button issue moving forward, but as it stands, Reynolds, after multiple attempts, succeeded in passing her school choice bill, despite the presence of what Bruening said was “bi-partisan opposition.” 


Central’s CEA President, Staci Schmeling, was contacted for this article, but did not reply. Several attempts were made to locate and contact the Chair of the Republican Party in Clayton County, but were unsuccessful. Thoughts from State Rep. Anne Osmundson can be found in last week’s and this week’s paper.

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