The great divide: Iowa bill threatens public school funding

When kids are little, we ask them something like, ‘Would you like to wear your red shirt or your green shirt today?’ This is an elementary principle which later down the line helps us develop our opinions about more complex matters.

Having options encourages critical thinking; equipping us with the ability to compare, contrast and examine the pros and cons. Choices are an invisible essential for a human’s day-to-day functioning; but left unsupervised, greed can swiftly overpower us, and soon enough the child will be demanding you buy them a new shirt.

In early January, Governor Reynolds proposed an increase of the education department’s budget by about 1.5 percent.

Just about a week later, legislation was proposed that would set aside state funds to public school students whose families desire, but can’t afford private education. School vouchers place taxpayer money in accounts that students can tap into so they can invest in alternative K-12 education, including homeschooling.

Reynolds spoke to the issue, stating, “I think it’s really important that we have a very strong public school system. It’s also important to provide parents with choice.” As a lawmaker, she is absolutely right; she must fairly evaluate the possibility.

However, the opinion of the senator Mark Chelgren, who generated the bill, concerns me more. His quote in the Des Moines Register reads, “If there’s a public school that’s failing, we have a responsibility to those children that we give them the best opportunity possible.” Suffice to say, I have several thoughts.

Unpacking that first phrase, if a public school is failing as Chelgren overstates it, shouldn’t the first logical step be to investigate? Chelgren’s presumption that public school can’t be the superior choice and provide students with just as promising of an outlook as private school, is disappointing.

“Every student in Iowa deserves a completely free, excellent public education paid for by taxpayers.” -Claire Celsi, organizer for Iowans for Public Education

The keyword is free; because ideally, if expenses for public schools are adequately met, the result would be a healthy system, free to families, that intends to provide a quality education to Iowa’s students. Little reason would then exist for the state to get financially involved with the private school system, discrediting much of Senator Chelgren’s argument and proposal.

Unfortunately, public schools have a history of being exploited, with more funds snatched out from under them, year after year.

Tighter budgets force administrations to cut corners on programs that are not considered absolutely essential, thus making way for the rise of the school-choice movement to play the hero and leading public education to an unwilling demise. Nurturing this bill to approval is not a risk we can justify taking.

I think it is important to pinpoint that legislators are not the sole advocates for private education; parents too may develop a negative view of public school for a slew of different reasons which may involve misconceptions. While it is the parent’s decision about how to school their children, a biased argument against public schools accomplishes little good. Some may interpret lack of funding for alternative education options as the government controlling their choices.

Randy Richardson of Iowans for Public Education hits the nail on the head saying, “We don’t believe public money should be going to support private schools.” The state is not discriminating by choosing to direct public money to public institutions.

I believe there are situations where distributing public funds can be justified in order to support students who require an alternative to public school, particularly homeschooling. Nevertheless, once the overall quality of public education begins to suffer and the answer is to redirect taxpayer money to private schools and patching up public ones when it’s convenient, those funds are no longer being used effectively.

I really have to squint to see how granting money for school voucher programs could be a wiser, more cost-effective solution than investing in the repair of a system that provides for all of Iowa’s students. After just a glance at this proposal, there is a scent of special interest.

With Chelgren’s lofty, illogical remarks as evidence and placing private education on a pedestal as the best the state can do for its kids; the way I see it, his concern is either largely misplaced or there are other factors behind proposing this bill.

Public schools hold all the potential to be the ‘best opportunity possible’ for kids, not to mention, easier on the state’s pocket. This proposed 1.5% budget increase will mean nothing to public schools if up to $6,000 in tuition expenses are allowed per student, and will spell worse conditions if it results in driving more families away from public education. Admittedly, this evaluation is surface-level, as the web of connections that is government allows for the inclusion of many influences. Although a solution is not clear-cut, that should not justify a leap to extreme endeavors that are costly in every sense. By promoting educational options outside the public school system with substantial funding from the state, public schools will become a martyr for all the wrong reasons.

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