Enacting a Choice Slogan
Terry H. Schwadron
Jan. 26, 2023
In the wee hours this week, the Republican-majority Iowa state legislature passed on a party-line vote a proposal by Gov. Kim Reynolds to allow public tax money to be spent on private and parochial school tuitionor other schooling expenses.
It’s a notable decision that will boost the “school choice” movement and likely will hasten decline of public schools and teacher salaries.
For an ever spending-conscious Republican Party, it also saddles the state with an expensive new program that gave enough pause for legislators to make the question thorny. Indeed, the measure for less-expensive voucher alternatives had failed twice before.
Governor Reynolds sees this voucher program as a new freedom for parents, saying that “for the first time, we will fund students instead of a system, a decisive step in ensuring that every child in Iowa can receive the best education possible.”
The public schools see the movement as an attack.
Iowa now becomes the third state, after West Virginia and Arizona, to provide taxpayer payments to private schools with few limits, with Florida, Nebraska, Virginia, and Utah also considering such bills. There are limited tuition supports for private schools in more than 25 states.
This school voucher movement has been around for years, but took off during the Donald Trump administration, where then Education Secretary Betsy DeVos promoted public support of private schools as choice. It has been complicated by disputes over support for religious-sponsored schools — which account for the majority of private schools — but also by the growing charter school movement within public programs, teacher union issues and equal pay.
No Academic Measures
What is striking is there are few reported academic measures that overall educational achievement among the wide variety of private and parochial schools show better results. Groups like the National Education Center say there simply is too much variation among private schools to know that students will show better success in one system or another. Indeed, in New York City, there is a current scandal about non-tuition supports going to Hasidic schools where students cannot pass standardized tests for academic studies because those are not being taught for more religious studies.
The courts have entered these voucher policy debates as well, ruling in recent cases to support tuition payments to religious schools both in Montana and Maine.
The Iowa case differs in that it is not about isolated communities without schooling alternatives, but a more general appeal to parental choice statewide.
What this “privatization” effort means in Iowa is that taxpayers will be asked to support a public school system statewide and an estimated $345 million a year in voucher payments to private schools.
That’s the nonpartisan analysis by the Legislatives Services Agency for annual costs once the program is fully implemented in its fourth year. The agency noted its assessment came without knowing some details, including the cost of paying a business to oversee the program.
For Republicans, who are demanding spending cuts, this seems an expensive exception.
As The Washington Post reports, the governor and Republican legislators have argued that all families should be able to send their children to private school, not just those wealthy enough to afford the tuition. They note that if students opt for private school, their $7,600 in per-pupil support would follow them to the private institution, but the plan would send $1,200 to the public school districts where the students reside. The public funding also would be available to students already enrolled in private schools, with family income requirements phasing out over three years.
Republicans said the kneecapping of public schools is over-stated, arguing instead that if there is an exodus from public schools to private schools, we should learn something about the failure of public schools.
Democrats countered that schools already are under-funded, and that this approach will make it worse. Most rural districts have no private schools, and the effects will be in the cities, with racial and social overtones.
For fans of programs with financial regulation to assure achievement of stated goals, this one has none.
Why Stop at Schools?
If privatizing schools on the public dollar is a good idea, why stop with schools?
Shouldn’t I have choice in who does the policing in my neighborhood? Why shouldn’t taxpayer money rather be spent on my local militia group or on deployment of a private social work entity?
Why do we need city or county building inspectors when private people could get the same money to decide that they know best what kind of construction will work? Why would we think that a construction company might find its own work satisfactory but not that of a competitor? In a world of choice, we don’t need standards, right?
How about private food inspectors or private airline administrators or a private environmental protection agency?
We’re busy shutting down the efforts to privatize prisons after failed experiments resulted in a welter of criminal complaints ranging from fraud to mistreatment of inmates. We prosecute businesses and individuals to bend the government rules for personal gain, but is the solution to get rid of all the regulations?
If we’re serious about exploring problems in public education, why do we assume that the solution is to abandon them for private schools that set their own rules? Why do we believe that parents are sufficiently involved to know how to evaluate the private and parochial schools in their area or to assure academic achievement.
What we’re seeing under the banner of parental choice is removal of books from school libraries without even first reading them, loud arguments about who can use school bathrooms and anger about covid mask requirements. The politicians backing school choice are bringing us less academic rigor and a ton more social policy.
Iowa is adopting a slogan into public policy. It is bound to run into complication that will prove inadequate.