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House Panel Approves School Vouchers; Democrats Object

Alan Levine/flickr

A bill to allow vouchers for some Iowa private school students advanced at the capitol this week.  

The bill faces an uncertain future, but it created a firestorm of protest from advocates for the state’s public schools.  

Private schools are pushing hard for something they call Education Savings Accounts.   The bill would give some low-income families close to six thousand dollars in state funds per child to help defray tuition.   

“It works in a way to give families that don't have a choice in education to make other choices,” said Trish Wilger with Iowa Advocates for Choice in Education.

But the grants to children for private school would come out of the budget of the local public school district the families would be opting out of. 

Public education advocates lined up to oppose it.

“It’s a nose under a camel's tent situation,” said Margaret Buckton with the Iowa Urban Education Network and Rural School Advocates of Iowa.   “Once you do this, we're concerned about how far it can go.”

“We think this is not the highest priority for the use of public funds this year,” said Brad Hudson with the Iowa State Education Association, “with all the other needs we have within our K-12 schools.”

“This is outrageous, it's ridiculous and I think the bill needs to stop here,” said Connie Ryan with the Interfaith Alliance of Iowa.   “This is a voucher.   We’ve seen it in other states.”

The grants would be roughly equivalent to the amount the state spends per pupil to educate kids in public schools.     Private school advocates have long argued that they should be entitled to the money.  

Under the bill, a pilot program would cover just two districts, Waterloo and Sioux Center.   Eric Goranson with the Iowa Association of Christian Schools would like to see it go statewide.

“We’ve been honest about that,” Goranson said.  “We’ve had bills to that effect for a number of years."

Iowa City Democrat Mary Mascher apologized to the people who turned out for the hearing, implying it was all a stunt.

“It’s an insult to you to take the time to come here when there's no intention of putting this bill forward in  any shape or form,” Mascher said.  “It  will not appear in the calendar in  the house in terms  of general  debate on  the floor.’

But the bill’s manager, Rep. Walt Rogers (R-Cedar Falls) disagrees.

“Representative Mascher doesn’t talk to our leadership,” Rogers said.  “This bill was brought forward in good faith.  There is momentum in the country for parents to have more choice in education.”

Rep. John Kooiker (R-Boyden) represents Sioux Center, one of the districts whose children would be eligible for the grants.  

He says the district is concerned about losing that per-pupil funding.   But he favors taking money away from public schools.

“They’re always wanting more money to do less with fewer students and bigger staff and more teachers,” Kooiker said.  “It can’t keep going.”

Backers of the bill say similar legislation has passed constitutional muster on grounds of separation of church and state.  One skeptic urged lawmakers to “lawyer up” to make sure it’s constitutional to give the grants to two districts and no one else.

If the bill wins full House approval, it would likely not see action in the democratically-controlled Senate.  

Rep. Mascher wishes they’d be spending their time elsewhere.   

“Obviously we have a great deal of work to do before we adjourn this session,” Mascher said.

She says that includes approving a more than $7 billion state budget.