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Vouchers are back
April 10, 2018

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With just a few weeks left in session, Republican lawmakers revived their plan for private school vouchers. Once fully implemented, this latest version would shift over $250 million in taxpayer dollars from public schools to private schools.

It's a troubling development in the closing days of session that would have negative consequences for kids in public schools for generations ahead and hasten the closing of public schools, especially in rural areas. There are a host of reasons why this plan isn't right for Iowa.

Public Money for Public Schools

Iowans have great pride in our public school system. I agree with most Iowans and don't believe we should start a new voucher program. According to a recent Iowa Poll, 65% of Iowans do not want public funds to go to private education.

As lawmakers, we should be investing our public tax dollars in public schools that serve 92% of students and are available to every Iowan. After eight years of historic low funding for public schools, the state's per pupil funding is now well below the national average and too many schools are already closing their doors, especially in rural areas.

Given the state's budget troubles the last two years, a new $250 million voucher program would require significant cuts in other areas of the state budget, including public schools. If vouchers are approved, the end result will be higher class sizes and fewer opportunities for kids in public schools.

I've also heard deep concerns about the voucher program from parents who have kids with disabilities or receive special education services at public schools. Not only have some of these parents been denied acceptance to private schools because they won't provide the extra services their child needs, they also know another huge shift in state resources out of public schools will reduce the availability of services their child receives today.

Parents Already

Have Education Options

While voucher advocates claim otherwise, the truth is Iowa parents already have several options for educating their children outside their own neighborhood public school. That includes open enrollment to another school district, private schools, on-line schools, and home schools.

In fact, Iowa already provides over $54 million in public tax dollars for private schools and homeschool assistance. That includes millions in tax credits to private and corporate donors that get state tax incentives to fund tuition scholarships for private schools and homeschools. Iowa's publicly funded Area Education Agencies (AEA) also provide support to private schools for special education programs, health services, services for remedial education programs, guidance services, and school testing services.

Student Achievement Drops

There's also a growing body of research that proves vouchers don't improve student achievement. In Indiana, researchers found kids who used vouchers to transfer from public schools to private schools lost ground in math and saw zero improvement in reading. Another study in Louisiana found students there lost ground in both reading and math. Similar results were found yet again in a separate study of vouchers in Ohio.

It's no secret the voucher plan will hit rural areas especially hard. For most families in rural areas, public schools are the lifeblood of the local communities but already struggling with anemic state funding and declining enrollment. With a trade war now underway that could devastate Iowa's ag economy, a new voucher program would exacerbate the negative population trends in rural Iowa and siphon even more money from local schools to shift to private schools in thriving urban areas.

We have a great educational system in Iowa including excellent schools and teachers - both in our public and private schools. With the state budget in the red and years of anemic state investment for public schools catching up with us, we shouldn't start a new voucher program that shifts money away from public schools.

I believe we should prioritize the needs of 488,000 public school students before adding another benefit to private schools in a tight budget year.

State Representative Mark Smith of Marshalltown serves the 71st District in the Iowa House and is the Iowa House Democratic Leader.

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