Rural educators are bracing for the potential impact of the “student first scholarship” legislation that passed the Iowa Senate Wednesday night.

The legislation, Senate File 2369, would allow students who choose to attend private school to use tax dollars to pay for tuition.

Gov. Kim Reyolds proposes that 30 percent of Iowa’s per pupil funding for K-12 students who accept tax dollars to pay for private school go into a separate fund and be distributed equally to mostly rural districts with 500 or fewer students. 

Iowa has 104 districts with 500 or fewer students, according to numbers from the Iowa Department of Education. There are 327 total public school districts in the state.

Chris Coffelt, the shared superintendent of Central Decatur and Lamoni districts south of Des Moines, said his school districts are an example of why the plan isn’t gaining traction.

Just under 330 students are enrolled in the Lamoni district, while a little over 750 attend the Central Decatur district. Choosing to offer additional funds to schools with 500 or fewer students seems arbitrary; both districts serve students with the same needs, from the same socioeconomic backgrounds and in the same area, Coffelt said.

“Yet one would benefit, and I say ‘benefit’ with air quotes, and the other would not,” he said.

Proposal comes up last two years

In 2021 and again this year, Reynolds has said the legislation will improve education in the state by empowering parents to choose what’s best for their children. Making tax dollars available to help fund private school tuition is a move that “has the potential to raise the quality of all schools,” she said in her Condition of the State address in January.

But last year’s bill didn’t pass, and this year, legislation that would fund these scholarships is seeing difficulty.

Although the Senate on Wednesday night approved the legislation), the House on Tuesday passed its version , House File 2577, without the scholarship measure. The House bill still includes a proposal requiring public and charter school teachers to share what materials they plan to use in class, and update that information if plans change.

Under Reynolds’ plan, 70 percent of the state’s per pupil funding, $5,359, would follow children to their private schools of choice. The remaining 30 percent, $2,270, would go into a separate fund, to be equally distributed to smaller, mostly rural districts with enrollment of 500 or fewer students. Students currently on individualized education programs or whose families make up to 400 percent of the federal poverty level, $111,000 for a family of four, would be eligible for the program, with 10,000 spots available.

Of 32 states nationwide to consider some sort of school choice bill that would funnel tax dollars to private schools over the past year, Iowa is the only one to propose sending a portion of per pupil funding to small, mostly rural districts. 

Coffelt, the shared superintendent, got his license this school year to drive a bus.

Drivers are hard to come by, so if someone is sick or can’t make it, Coffelt fills in. Central Decatur also hasn’t been able to fill an open counseling position or a secondary special education position all year, he said.

“Ten years ago when I started and we had an open elementary position, we would have 50 or 60 applicants. Today we have maybe three or four applicants for that same type of position,” Coffelt said.

For rural districts like his, educators and other resources are in increasingly short supply, and legislation that would funnel tax dollars away from public schools will only cause more strain, he said.

‘Winners and losers’

Alex Murphy, a spokesman for Reynolds, and Chair of the House Education Committee Rep. Dustin Hite, R-New Sharon, did not respond to requests to comment.

“[Reynolds] is aware that there is resistance, particularly in the House on both sides of the aisle, to various voucher proposals. I think part of that has to do with the fact that if you create a voucher program, the people who are going to benefit from that voucher program are people who can already attend private schools,” said Melissa Peterson, government relations specialist for the Iowa State Education Association, the professional organization of more than 34,000 educators statewide. “She’s trying to pick winners and losers.”

Private schools and home school services received $73 million in state and federal tax dollars in 2020 prior to the pandemic, and the Legislative Services Agency estimates that number will climb to more than $104.5 million for the 2022 fiscal year. State and federal aid for private schools and homeschooling includes funding for lunches, transportation, textbooks, a school tuition organization tax credit and more. 

Iowa had a total of 184 nonpublic schools as of the 2019-2020 school year; there were 181 as of the 2021-2022 school year.  

School boards for both of Coffelt’s districts are opposed to the legislation and have contacted their local representatives. They believe tax dollars should not be used for private education, and disagree with a different accountability system that public schools will have to follow but private schools will not, he said.

State Sen. Amy Sinclair, R-Allerton, and Rep. Joel Fry, R-Osceola represent that area. Sinclair is chair of the Iowa Senate Education Committee, and Fry is a member of the House Education Committee. Neither responded to requests to comment.

Rural problems and solutions

Finding a way to offset decreased funding for these districts is an interesting idea, because the smaller a school district is, the bigger the impact of any drop in funding. And, due to the logistics of being more remote, rural districts are also less likely to have a private school in the area, which is a barrier to school choice programs getting off the ground, said Jennifer Schiess, a partner at Bellwether Education Partners, a nonprofit organization that develops policy solutions and conducts research in the education field, and also works with public, charter and private schools, and with nonprofit and for-profit education organizations.

“Rural schools are often already kind of on their back foot because of diseconomies of scale, where they’re serving smaller populations. They may have half as many kindergarten students, for example, as an urban school, but you can’t hire half a teacher. You need a whole teacher, a whole classroom, a whole set of supplies, all the things,” said Schiess, co-author of “Portfolio of Choice: School Choice in Rural Communities,” published by the National Comprehensive Center.

Rural schools face unique challenges regarding transportation, teacher recruitment and retention, and the ability to offer the same variety of programs.

There are ways to solve those challenges, she said, “but it requires investments, and I don’t think choice is a complete solution to any education challenge. I think it’s one part of the puzzle … thinking about solutions that are focused on kids and families is the right way to look at it.”

Two funding mechanisms in Iowa benefit rural districts: a transportation equity program, which gives school districts additional funding for transportation costs that exceed a statewide adjusted average cost per student, and an operational sharing weighting, which gives smaller, usually more rural districts the ability to share positions they can’t afford on their own, said Dave Daughton, a lobbyist for Rural School Advocates of Iowa, the state affiliate of the nonprofit National Rural Education Association and member of the Iowa Rural Development Council.

Operational function sharing, which is what enables two districts to share Coffelt as superintendent and thus lower their costs, is a financial incentive enacted by the Iowa Legislature, set to expire after the 2023-24 school year. 

Although these pieces of the funding formula help rural districts, more assistance is needed, especially because statewide supplemental funding doesn’t keep up with annual inflation costs, and legislation like Reynolds’ school choice bill, if enacted, would further drain overall statewide funding, Daughton said.

“We know that our costs are going to go up somewhere between 3 and 4 percent next year, and that’s probably on the low end,” said Daughton, also a retired superintendent of Wayne Community School District, which currently has an enrollment of just over 620 students. “The state has given us a 2.5 percent increase in revenue. That doesn’t work.”

This year’s bill is getting more support because it is aimed at a broader range of students than last year’s bill, which focused on students in schools listed as needing comprehensive support. It also sends funds to small districts to alleviate possible impact if students transfer to private schools, said Trish Wilger, executive director of the Iowa Alliance for Choice in Education.

“I don’t think there’s going to be any mass exodus caused by this; there hasn’t been in any other state. I think just giving options to a few families that need them isn’t going to have a negative impact on our public school system,” she said.

But any diversion of funds from public education, which educates 92 percent of all kids in Iowa, ends up weakening the state’s workforce, said Charlie Wishman, president of the Iowa Federation of Labor, AFL-CIO, which opposes the legislation.

December 2021 enrollment numbers showed that 485,630 K-12 students attend public school in Iowa while 33,597 attend private schools.  

“If we want to solve the workforce crisis, companies come to a state not because of tax breaks, but because of an educated workforce,” he said. “This is the furthest [school choice] legislation has gotten. It’s concerning.”

Angela Rusten has lived in Tabor in western Iowa her whole life. She attended Fremont Mills Community School District, and so have her three children, two of whom have graduated, and one who is currently a senior in high school. As a child, she could see the differences between her school, and the bigger district her mom taught at in Council Bluffs.

“I saw that they had more money and more options,” she said.

While opportunities at Fremont Mills, where 437 students are currently enrolled, have expanded since she attended, she still sees disparities between the rural district and suburban schools. For example, the district has had trouble finding teachers for advanced math classes.

“My oldest took a college calc class online. Teachers sat in the room, but they weren’t trained in that so they couldn’t really help,” said Rusten, a medical clinic receptionist.

Teachers and staff at Fremont Mills work hard for their students, but at a certain point, there’s no amount of hard work that can make up for reduced state funding, she said. “We’ve stayed here because of family being nearby, it’s a good place to raise kids and it has great schools. I wouldn’t have stayed if there weren’t good schools.”

2.5% funding increase

Rusten said her district needs adequate funding, and she is discouraged by what she sees happening at the Statehouse.

“Support for our teachers would also be helpful. They need to quit running teachers down in the legislature. They’re doing so well and work so hard for our kids. I just don’t understand the hatred for teachers right now,” she said. “[Reynolds and lawmakers supporting school choice legislation] are so out of touch they’re not even in the same state. They don’t understand how important our schools are to our small communities and they don’t care. All they care about is the party line and they won’t do anything different.”

In Mount Pleasant, where 1,831 students are currently enrolled in public schools, the district is too big to see any extra funding from the education omnibus bill, but it could cause some students to leave for private schools. Overhead costs would be the same, but the district would have less funding.

“Proponents of the legislation say ‘putting students first’ — that’s great, you can slap that on a bumper sticker … but at the end of the day it’s putting certain students first, and really leaving others out to dry,” said Kellen Gracey, a data scientist and co-host of the 3 Rural White Guys podcast.

His 4-year-old will start school in Mount Pleasant soon. “I struggle with this… It’s a reason to pack up and move somewhere else if I don’t think my son is going to be supported or is going to have all the opportunities that are currently available to students that are in the system.”

Education makes up just over 56 percent of the state’s $3.6 billion budget for fiscal year 2023, which begins in July. That makes it a prime target for lawmakers looking to cut expenses, all while the private school industry sees a market for growth, said Mike Heaton, whose kids are in eighth and tenth grade in Mount Pleasant. He is also a co-host of the 3 Rural White Guys podcast.

“It creates a new stream of revenue for a market industry that relies on the more schools there are, the more money they make,” said Heaton, a former lobbyist for the Iowa Catholic Conference, where part of his job was to promote private school choice measures. “The failure to keep up with funding needs of our school systems over the past 10 years, you can literally see that play out in terms of our rural communities. The poverty rates have gone up, the free and reduced lunch rates have gone up, the amount of kids, after they graduate, returning home has gone down.”

Rural lawmakers in Iowa are supporting their communities by rejecting school choice legislation, Heaton said.

“I think our local elected officials are very much in touch,” he said. “I think it’s the Republican Party’s willingness to be swayed by outside influences that is causing this. It has nothing to do with the local needs or demands in rural communities.”

The Republican Party of Iowa declined to comment for this story.

Reframing ‘choice’

School choice is currently viewed as an innovative disruptor of the public school system. In this context, a parents’ rights to choose or letting the market decide, which is basically the aggregation of parenting, trumps everything else. But this way of defining choice ignores a variety of other options, and that does everyone — especially rural schools — a disservice, said Dr. Sigal Ben-Porath, professor of education at the University of Pennsylvania.

Meeting rural schools’ needs involves choices that aren’t likely to be found in current legislation. For example, visiting groups and teachers, smaller schools with more support, and incorporating multi-age groups are some examples of choices that make sense for many rural areas, said Ben-Porath, also the co-author of the book “Making Up Our Mind: What School Choice is Really About.”

“All of this costs some money. And it’s not that much more expensive than vouchers, it’s just differently invested. When you create vouchers, what you are saying is, ‘I will let the parents make the decisions,’ and when you are investing in public schools what you are saying is, ‘I will let the community make decisions about its future,’” she said.

A theme running through a number of education bills, including the governor’s school choice plans, is that of parents versus schools, said Sen. Herman Quirmbach, D-Ames, the ranking member of the Senate Education Committee.

Carving out funding for districts with 500 or fewer students is an effort to wrangle Republicans who couldn’t get behind the school choice proposal last year. However, it doesn’t address diseconomies of scale or provide rural communities with helpful options, he said.

“It’s pretty clear. They couldn’t get this bill through the House last year, they’re trying to win over some rural Republican legislators. From what I hear, it’s not getting the job done,” Quirmbach said.

A sticking point for Rep. Dave Maxwell, R-Gibson, is that of local control. 

The education bill’s requirement that teachers post lesson plans months in advance is an example of taking away local control, he said.

“I’m pretty much old school on this thing, and I’m not wild about taking money that should go to public schools and paying it out to private. I come from a very small, rural school district, and we don’t have much other choice,” Maxwell said. “I’m getting pressure from people to support the private schools. … I’ve also always felt that if I lose a seat because I don’t vote the way some interest group wants me to vote, I shouldn’t be here.”

RELATED: Nonpublic school state funding

The bill’s transparency requirements micromanage the parent-teacher relationship and is a greater burden on rural schools, which often don’t have full technology departments, said Rep. Sharon Steckman, D-Mason City.

“A parent can walk in any school district right now, and see the curriculum offered in every single classroom,” said Steckman, ranking member of the House Education Committee and a retired teacher. “Teachers are always looking for volunteers.”

There are no private schools near Coffelt’s districts in south central Iowa. Still, concern over opening the door to pay for private schools with public funds is ongoing. Even if the legislation is put on the back burner, educators expect it to keep coming back, he said.

“There’s concern that a lack of investment in our public schools creates more of a division between families that can afford to have a choice and families that can’t afford to have a choice,” Coffelt said. “It creates more insular communities, as opposed to engaged communities.”

The idea of education as a service to be selected per family, versus the belief that it is a public good beneficial to everyone is at the heart of the debate, said Ben-Porath.

“You need to have some sense of a shared public sphere, and I think that’s what we’re struggling with here.”

Leah McBride Mensching is a freelance reporter for IowaWatch. She has worked as a reporter, editor, photographer and media researcher over the past 15 years, both as an independent journalist and as an editorial manager for WAN-IFRA, the global organization of the world’s press. She earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism and mass communication from Iowa State University and a master’s degree in journalism from Northwestern University.

Type of work:

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *