School Administrators Not Sold On 'School Choice' Bill

David Gute

Devin Embray

The Iowa legislature has passed the Students First Act, the state’s first law allowing taxpayer money to pay for students to attend private schools.

The bill passed in the Iowa House Jan. 23 by a 55-45 margin before the Senate followed suit with a 31-18 vote in the early morning hours of Jan. 24. Gov. Kim Reynolds, a long time proponent of the so-called “student choice” legislation, signed it into law later that day.

The bill will put $7,598 into the hands of families in the form of an education savings account for each student to attend a private school. Supporters of the bill and the majority of Republican  lawmakers that voted for it have given the legislation high marks for students and families, with many citing the financial factors creating more choices and educational opportunities. The total price tag of the bill is expected to cost $879 million as the program phases in over the next four years.

But not all are in favor of the bill.

In interviews last week Dr. Devin Embray, Superintendent of the Glenwood Community Schools, and Dave Gute, Superintendent at the Fremont-Mills Community Schools, expressed concerns about the bill and its impacts on public education.

“It’s disappointing,” said Gute of the bill, adding his hearing there’s nearly $900 million for the bill and after years of being told by the legislature ‘That’s all we can afford,’ is a hard pill to swallow.

“We as public schools need more SSA (supplemental state aid) to pay teachers and attract teachers to the profession,” Gute went on. “If they’ve had that money sitting around, why weren’t we privy to any of that?”
Embray said he’s all for parent choice on where they want their child to go to school. His issues are with the current legislation as it’s written.

“I am not in favor of the bill,” Embray said. “I don’t think the legislation was good legislation for public schools in Iowa. I understand parents think this is a school choice bill but it’s really more of a private school choice law now. I say that because there are no accountability pieces in place. Private schools don’t have to adhere to the same accredited standards the public schools have to adhere to.”

State Auditor Rob Sand has also been critical of the bill, saying in a press release last week he is “alarmed by the intentional lack of transparency and accountability” in the legislation.

“This bill gives private schools your tax dollars and gives you no right to know what they are doing with them,” Sand said in the statement. He went on to express concern that private schools are not required to have opening meetings, produce public records, maintain public oversight or publish an annual audit.

Dave Sieck, the state representative for Mills County, was one of nine Republicans to break ranks and vote against the bill in the House. In the past and in the lead up to the vote, Sieck publicly voiced his opposition to the legislation.

“If I’m voting my district, my district says they’re liking their public schools and I don’t have any private schools, so why would I change,” Sieck told The Opinion-Tribune.

The Students First Act, which will phase in over the next three years, will allow Iowa families to use to up to $7,598 a year for private school tuition. That money is the same amount of funding the state currently provides to public schools per student. The figure is expected to rise in coming years. The funds will be held in “education savings accounts” – or ESAs – for families to spend on tuition. Any leftover funds can be used for other education expenses, such as textbooks, tutoring, online education programs or vocational skill training among others.

The bill goes into affect in the fall of 2023.  Any student transferring from public to private, any incoming kindergartner and current private school students whose family is at or below 300 percent of the federal poverty level are eligible.

In the fall of 2024, the same students are eligible with the change that students whose families are at or below 400% of the federal poverty level are now eligible.

By 2025, all students will be eligible regardless of income level or if they are already in the private school or not. At full implementation, the goal is that all public schools will receive additional funding for every student enrolled in a private school and who lives within their district boundaries. This would happen whether or not that private school student was ever enrolled in the local public school or not. That amount is expected to be $1,200 per student.

There are currently no private schools in Mills County. However, GCSD has long had an agreement allowing Council Bluffs St. Albert to bus students to that school. Even with a lack of private school options in the Fremont-Mills and Glenwood districts, Gute feels the legislation “hurts all public education, no matter what county you’re in.”

Gute said his district is in the midst of preparing for next year’s budget. Just how to prepare for the new legislation’s impact is up in the air.

“If we lose two students are we closing our doors? No, but 10 years from now and you’re down 100 students, it’s an issue.”

Both Gute and Embray pointed to the lack of oversight and public record requirements for private schools among their biggest concerns. Both also brought up that public schools are under no obligation to admit all students.

“They can screen out students,” Embray said. “I don’t want to give parents a false feeling they can just go anywhere they want. It’s going to be up the private school if it wants them to come.”

Whether students leave public school districts in droves or it’s a slow trickle remains to be seen. But students will be on the move. The Legislative Services Agency, a nonpartisan agency tasked with analysis of the fiscal impact of bills and amendments, has predicted more than 14,000 Iowa public school students will be enrolled in the program in the 2024-2025 school year.

The potential economic impact of that on public schools is a scary proposition.

“Funding will definitely be less for public schools,” Embray said. “If you have 25 kids leave you can’t just reduce staff for that kind of reduction even though that’s going to cost you $150,000-plus in reduced funding. That (reduction) will probably be sprinkled all across the district and you can’t reduce staffing costs for that but it’s going to be a hit on the financial side.”

For now, the Student First Act is here to stay. Although Embray and Gute both agree its likely the language of the law will change over time, especially as several states in the region, including Nebraska, take up similar school choice-type bills in their current legislative sessions.

Embray downplayed the role COVID and other controversial issues impacting education, such as critical race theory and sex education is playing in the school choice trend but he did say there is a lack of trust among parents for educators. But he doesn’t feel it’s a widespread feeling of distrust.

“There’s a sentiment in our state that public schools are indoctrinating students with a certain viewpoint,” Embray said. “I don’t think that’s necessarily true. However, there is a fear factor of that happening. We try very hard to make sure our students are educated in an environment where they determine what they believe.

“We’re not trying to tell them they have to believe one side over another. We try and present both sides of an argument and let them choose. We have a stellar staff in Glenwood and I think we do a phenomenal job.”


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