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OUR OPINION: Student choice bill would hurt Iowa public schools

OUR OPINION: Student choice bill would hurt Iowa public schools

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Iowa was once viewed as the standard by which other states measured their public schools. We set the bar and, now, rather than shore up that revered system, majority Republicans seem to want to cripple it.

By pushing a “school choice” plan, Gov. Kim Reynolds and most Republican House and Senate members are bolstering private schools at the likely expense of some public ones.

The big question is, “Why?”

On a mostly party line vote, the Senate on Thursday night approved Reynolds’ sweeping K-12 education legislation, which establishes taxpayer-funded scholarships for private school tuition for students in struggling public schools, expands the state’s charter school program, and eliminates diversity programs that prevent students from open enrolling out of the district.

Under the bill, Senate File 160, scholarships of up to $5,200 would be available to students in schools that are receiving assistance under a federal program that identifies schools in need of “comprehensive support and improvement.” According to a state report, that current list of 34 schools includes 6 elementary schools in Northwest Iowa -- in Charter Oak, Hawarden, George, Ireton, Little Rock, Ruthven and Sac City.

Reynolds and other Republicans who supported the legislation argued it will provide more options for students who are struggling in public schools to seek educational opportunities at private schools.

Democrats warn the measure would create unlimited standing appropriation to pay for private education with potentially more than $50 million in public dollars — an approach they argue would actually limit parents’ choices.

We agree. By pulling scarce state funds from certain public schools, those schools would become weaker.

What’s truly shocking is why Iowans wouldn’t want their public schools to be as vibrant as possible. Diverting money to private schools suggests they don’t have faith in the system they’re charged with supporting. Worse yet, it has the potential to cripple or even kill rural schools, which are already experiencing declining student numbers.

For years, public schools have demonstrated a need for more support. Now, with the added costs of COVID-19 precautions, they’re undercutting them even more.

It doesn’t make sense.

There’s so much inherently wrong with this concept it doesn’t need a fast track. It needs a thorough study. Further, taxpayers should have more of a say in where their money is spent.

If the goal is to support parochial and other private schools, the state should find a way to provide for that. But it shouldn’t be a matter of “either/or.”

Republicans determined to require K-12 public schools to offer 100 percent in-person instruction is sending a mixed message, particularly if alternate schooling gives parents financial incentives to keep their children home.

Just because they have a majority in the legislature doesn’t mean the Republicans should use it to fast-track a concept that isn’t in the best interest of all citizens.

That has always been an Iowa basic.

Reynolds made a pitch Friday for the House to approve the bill as soon as possible. But with opposition to the idea of taxpayer-funded vouchers for private schools growing across the state, it's time for Republicans to pause, listen to Iowans' concerns, and figure out what’s truly best for the state's youth. 

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