Letter to the editor: Vouchers a bad ‘choice’ for Iowa schools

Chairperson of the Iowa Senate Education Committee Sen. Amy Sinclair, the Allerton Republican, led the passage Thursday of a school voucher program. The Iowa House of Representatives will take up the legislation next week.

To the editor:

Can Iowa teachers take another punch to the gut this year? I’m not sure I’m going to be able to. As a 30-year veteran in the profession, there is no doubt that this has been the most challenging year of my teaching career. Three different learning modalities, adding considerable responsibilities to my teaching load in order to support online learners, trying to make sure my students stay healthy in my classroom — it has all left me tired in a way that I have never been tired before.

But our governor and her Republican colleagues want to be sure and give us one more solid kick to the gut. They are bringing Iowa a program that has failed in state after state: private school vouchers. Plain and simple, vouchers take public dollars and put them in the pockets of private schools that are not accountable to the same rules and standards as public schools.

Make no mistake about it. Iowa’s Republican legislators are attacking public education during a time when schools are facing challenges unlike anything we’ve ever experienced. In a year when the governor is proposing a modest increase to school funding, the voucher program will cost the state around $52 million a year. Where will that money come from? Straight out of resources currently going to public schools.

Proponents of vouchers like to talk about “choice.” First of all, Iowa’s open-enrollment laws are among the most extensive in the country. Some 6.2% of Iowa’s students take advantage of open-enrollment opportunities. As you encounter people who are advocates for “choice,” ask them what kinds of opportunities they would like to see a school offer. Then ask them to consider why our public schools aren’t able to offer those opportunities. The answer is always simple: limited resources.

If the people of Iowa want more educational opportunities for students, why are we not providing the necessary resources to Iowa’s public schools to provide those opportunities? What can private schools provide that public schools are not able to? The answer is either religious education (which public dollars should not be subsidizing) or a more restrictive enrollment policy. More “choice” should be about more opportunities. All of us in public education agree that students should be provided with more opportunities, and that can be accomplished by providing public schools with more resources.

It should also be clear that vouchers disproportionately impact rural schools. There will not be a rush to build new private schools in Gov. Reynolds’ hometown of Osceola, and yet the public schools in Osceola will lose funds. Those funds will be traveling to private religious schools in Iowa’s suburbs.

You might be surprised to know that the state of Iowa already provides more than $60 million in taxpayer dollars to Iowa’s private schools. The voucher bill will almost double that amount, with all of those dollars coming from what is currently allotted to public schools. Many small communities will lose their public schools due to the increased need to consolidate.

In 1974 my father’s boss asked him where in the Midwest he wanted our family to live. My parents did a lot of research and chose Ames, Iowa. We had lived in Colorado, Nebraska and Kansas, but my parents chose Ames because of the quality of schools. So my father’s boss bought a bank in Ames so that my parents could raise our family there. Iowa has long been viewed as an example of strong public schools. That time is surely soon to pass if it hasn’t already.

I don’t know about you, but it gets harder and harder to cite examples of how Iowa is supportive of public schools or public educators. We’ve long been underfunded. We have lost our ability to bargain collectively, and now we will siphon our already limited resources to religious schools and schools seeking to make a profit.

It seems that Iowa will now follow the failed examples of states around the country that have succumbed to legislation written by ALEC and the Koch Brothers. There isn’t a place in the country where vouchers have led to improved results for all learners. Study after study demonstrates that vouchers don’t lift struggling students but merely create a wider gap between those who already have extensive resources and those who do not.

What are we, as Iowa’s teachers, prepared to do in answer to this continued assault on public education? Comically, Iowa’s Republican lawmakers want to engage in a study on teacher recruitment and retention. Iowa State Education Association Director Randy Richardson wrote an excellent open letter to the author of that legislation. He correctly said that teacher recruitment and retention would be solved by adequately funding public education, restoring bargaining rights and restoring local control of our schools.

It really is that simple, but instead our governor and her colleagues are going to double down on their anti-public school legislative agenda. So again I ask, what are we prepared to do to save public schools in Iowa?

Somehow our narrative isn’t being heard. Iowa continues to elect legislators who are hostile to public education. Community members who consider themselves proud supporters of their local schools elect legislators who have continually sought to undermine public education through bad legislation. Frankly, our honest stories of what is happening in our schools aren’t being heard.

I wish I had an answer to the question about what we should be prepared to do at this point. As a profession, we need to begin having some serious conversations about how we change the trajectory of Iowa’s public schools, or the damage might become irreversible. Teachers, we need to talk to each other about what we are willing to do to save our schools. Our legislators are failing us, and we are losing a battle that we can’t afford to lose.

If we don’t take action now, when?

Patrick J. Kearney
Des Moines


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