Iowa Republicans to revive push for private school scholarships

Ryan Friederich helps a student navigate a task in a virtual computer repair shop Thursday in his eighth-grade computer science class at Forest City Middle School in Forest City. Students are put in the role of a computer repair tech and are given a customer’s computer to diagnose and fix. The fifth-through eighth-grade school has an enrollment of 350 students. Forest City administrators worry that, if approved, private school scholarships at taxpayer expense would limit course offerings, lead to larger class sizes and force more school consolidations. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

FOREST CITY — Darwin Lehmann is no stranger to school consolidation.

The superintendent of both the Central Springs and Forest City school districts in Northern Iowa, he was there when the Woden-Crystal Lake district was dissolved and absorbed into the Forest City district.

Now, he’s worried that a measure, championed by Gov. Kim Reynolds and sure to be a top issue in the legislative session starting Monday, may lead to more defunding and consolidation. In the upcoming session, Republican leaders will take another swing at passing a measure that would give some parents the option of using taxpayer dollars that would otherwise go to public schools to subsidize a private school education.

Lehman said the legislation would take money from schools that are already struggling with lower-than-requested state funding.

Superintendent Darwin Lehmann (Supplied photo)

Reynolds’ plan last year would have taken about $5,360 out of a public school for each student who took advantage of the program, for use at a private or charter school. That plan would have made 10,000 scholarships available to families making up to 400 percent of the poverty line or for parents with children in Individualized Education Plans, and only for students who were in public school the previous year or were starting kindergarten. The plan included a provision that distributed some of a student’s per-pupil funding to rural schools to mitigate some of the negative effects.

Proponents of the proposal, which they call “school choice,” say the policy would give parents more choice in their children’s education and provide options for children who don’t succeed in a public school. Opponents use the term “vouchers” and say the plan would further hamper already struggling schools and give public dollars to schools that do not have the same requirements and obligations as public schools.

Iowa House Speaker Pat Grassley, R-New Hartford, said in an interview he’s optimistic that the House will have the votes to pass a “school choice” measure, which stalled in the chamber last year. This year will see the chartering of a new Education Reform Committee, which Grassley will chair, and will look at a school choice proposal.

“I do have a level of optimism that the support will be there within the caucus, but I don’t know what that looks like exactly today,” he said.

Grassley didn’t outline any specifics as far as the scope of what House Republicans will consider, but he said the Education Reform Committee will focus on a “holistic approach” to education. The proposal may be broader than what has been suggested in the past, he said.

“I see it more being around something that looks more like reform,” he said. “ … Looking at public and private, and how can we do better in education as a whole in Iowa? That’s more of the concept of what I think will be in that committee.”

Rural school concerns

For the rural schools that Lehmann overlooks, losing just a few pupils’ funding could mean the difference between hiring a teacher in schools that are already losing enrollment and receiving less state funding than they say they need. In the long run, he said that it poses the risk of further consolidation.

Forest City serves several surrounding communities and has a little over 1,000 enrolled students in the current school year.

Students pass to their next class Thursday at Forest City Middle School in Forest City. The fifth-through eighth-grade school has an enrollment of 350 students. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

“How are you going to maintain your budget and your programs? With less money, you’re going to look at larger class sizes potentially, loss of programs, whole grade sharing, maybe, and there’s some reorganizations, consolidations down the road,” he said. “And that would take time, but that’s where that goes.”

Daniel Sarasio Meyer explains an algebra problem to two of his students Thursday in an Algebra II class at Forest City High School in Forest City. The high school has ninth- to 12th-grade students and has an enrollment of about 324 students. Forest City schools administrators worry that if Iowa lawyers approve using tax money to fund scholarships at private schools, rural districts already struggling to make ends meet would suffer even more. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

Daniel Sarasio Meyer explains an equation to his students Thursday in an Algebra II class at Forest City High School in Forest City. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

Lehmann noted private schools already have some state backing in the form of tax credits: Iowans can donate to School Tuition Organizations — which help subsidize private school tuition for low- and middle-income families — and receive 75 percent of the donation as a tax credit .

Jason Blaser, a math teacher at Forest City and the president of the city’s education association, said private schools shouldn’t be getting public subsidization because they don’t have the same requirements and obligations as public schools.

“If a kid who potentially could receive a voucher is on an IEP, or needs some other sort of accommodations, a public school accepts that student with open arms,” he said. “A private school can say, ‘Sorry, we don’t have qualified staff’ or ”We choose not to allow you to come into our school building.’”

Fifth-grade match teacher and president of the Forest City Education Association Jason Blaser speaks Thursday at Forest City Middle School in Forest City, Iowa. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

The Forest City School District, like many rural schools, is also an economic engine and workforce development driver for the city, said Beth Bilyeu, the director of economic development for the city. After motor home manufacturer Winnebago and 3M, the school is the city’s largest employer.

Bilyeu said a loss of funds could weaken some of the school’s selling points, like career development centers and college class offerings. She said companies often use the school as a recruiting tool to bring people to the city.

“I think, just, take a step back and look at the bigger picture,” she said. “We’ve all been the instigator or the recipient of unintended consequences, and there isn’t much cushion.”

Iowa parent wants tuition assistance

Imelda Vargas of Sioux Center hopes that a tuition assistance program can help her three daughters continue to attend a private Christian school.

While last year’s proposal applied only to students currently in a public school, advocates are hoping lawmakers this year expand to more students, including those already enrolled in non-public schools.

Vargas’ oldest daughter attended a public preschool, but later she enrolled her in Sioux Center Christian School for Pre-K, and all her children now attend the school. Tuition for three students to attend the school in the 2020-21 school year was $13,288.

Vargas receives tuition assistance from the school and from the Northwest Iowa Christian School Tuition Organization. Still, after a recent divorce and change in her financial situation, Vargas said this year will be the last year her children can attend the school without state-funded assistance.

If eligible for tuition assistance, Vargas said she won’t “be worried about if it is enough money or a lot of donations. … It’s always a worry how much you qualify, how much you have to pay, so it will take away a lot of worry about that.”

House Republicans try again

House Republicans failed to get enough support to pass a voucher-style bill in the House last year, when at least a dozen Republicans, many from rural areas, refused to support the measure. Many were concerned about the effect the policy would have had on schools in their area.

Passing a similar measure this year was a major plank in Reynolds’ 2022 re-election campaign. She took the rare measure of endorsing primary challengers to several fellow Republicans who opposed the bill in the November election, ultimately leading to the loss of some incumbents.

“As the Governor has stated numerous times, she will never give up on providing children with the best learning environment they deserve,” Reynolds’ spokesperson Alex Murphy said in a statement in November. “Parental choice in education is not a zero-sum game and her focus continues to be on raising the quality of education in every Iowa school and for every single child.”

Responding to concerns about damages to rural schools, the House will look to pair school choice measures with allowing for more flexibility in how public schools can use their state-provided dollars, Grassley said.

“How can we try to give them some flexibility, because what we hear a lot back home is … ‘We’re not as worried about school choice if we can just have some flexibility in what we do,’” he said.

In the Senate, there was less dissent among Republicans in 2022. Annette Sweeney of Alden was the only Republican who voted against the tuition assistance proposal.

Jack Whitver, the Senate majority leader from Grimes, said he wants to work with the House to have one bill early on in the session to focus on, rather than competing proposals. He said the Senate would take the lead from Reynolds, who will likely announce her proposal from her during her condition of the state address Tuesday.

“We don’t really want to take anything off the table,” he said. “We just want to have a very open conversation and see where it goes from there.”

Democrats to oppose measures

Whatever proposal Republicans put forward, Democrats in both chambers have vowed to oppose it.

Jennifer Konfrst, the Democratic House leader from Windsor Heights, will be the ranking member on the Education Reform Committee and said she will work to “shine a spotlight” on the Republican plan.

“I kind of like the fact that it’s in its own committee because it gives us an opportunity to shine a light on this voucher scheme instead of trying to run it through another committee with all the other things that are going on,” she said.

Konfrst said, even with turnover in the House, she doesn’t think House Republicans have the votes locked in to pass the measure. She said she’ll still be working with Republican legislators to persuade them to vote against the measures.

Senate Democratic Leader Zach Wahls of Coralville echoed those sentiments, and he said Senate Democrats would oppose the Republicans’ proposals.

“We’re going to stand up for parents and kids and teachers against the Republicans’ radical attack on public education,” Wahls said. “… We know that they’re already developing plans to try and force it through. We think it’s a threat to rural schools in particular, we think it’ll force more school consolidation, bigger class sizes, fewer learning opportunities for kids.”

Legislative preview series

The Iowa Legislature begins its 2003 session on Jan. 9. The Gazette will examine these state issues in the days leading up to the session:

Jan. 1: Tax policy and the state budget

Thursday: Abortion policy

Tuesday: Health and Human Services merger

Wednesday: K-12 and higher education policy

Wednesday: Water quality

Friday: Elections and recounts laws

Saturday: Carbon capture pipelines

Today: Private school tuition assistance

Monday: Demographics of the new Legislature

Students in Ryan Friederich’s eighth-grade computer science class work on tasks Thursday in a virtual computer repair shop at Forest City Middle School in Forest City. Students are put in the role of a computer repair tech and are given a customer’s computer to diagnose and fix, including ordering the necessary parts or build a system from scratch according to customer specifications. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

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