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Voucher-Style Proposal Raises School Choice Debate In Iowa

Snow falls on the front entry to Joshua Christian Academy school in Des Moines.
Grant Gerlock
Joshua Christian Academy’s main location used to be a public elementary school on the east side of Des Moines. The private, faith-based school would stand to benefit from a bill that would give money to families to spend on private school tuition.

Gov. Kim Reynolds is prioritizing school choice legislation this year, including a voucher-style program for students in low-performing public schools. But opponents of the bill say it would come at the cost of students who choose to stay.

The cafeteria at Joshua Christian Academy on Garfield Ave. in Des Moines doubles as a chapel where students in khaki pants and red polo shirts gather for worship every morning before classes begin.

The private, Christian school on the east side of Des Moines is in a former public elementary school. Together with another location, there are 170 students in the academy from kindergarten to 12th grade.

Executive director and elementary principal, Reverend Keith Ratliff says parents choose Joshua Christian for faith-based learning and small classes, which average only 15 students.

“We feel that's one of the things that public schools have to deal with and that's with all the students they have,” Ratliff said. “So we feel very strongly that we wanted to keep our classes at a small level.”

A school choice bill passed by the Iowa Senate (SF 159) would create independent charter schools and expand open enrollment. It also creates voucher-style scholarships, worth around $5,200 a year, for families to spend on tuition at private schools like Joshua Christian Academy.

Supporters of the legislation say the vouchers would empower disadvantaged students to leave poor-performing public schools. But opponents say the program would funnel money away from schools that are already strapped for resources as they educate students with some of the greatest academic challenges.

Under the bill, which is now up for consideration in the Iowa House, scholarships would only go to students in schools labeled for Comprehensive Support and Improvement. That’s a revolving ranking that identifies the bottom 5 percent of schools in the state according to student test scores.

Comprehensive schools often have more students than average who are English-language learners, in special education or who come from low-income families. Five of the 34 comprehensive schools in Iowa are in Des Moines and most of those are near Joshua Christian.

Principal Ratliff supports school choice. Students come to Joshua Christian from all corners of the metro, but part of his school’s mission is to be an option for families in nearby low-income neighborhoods who think they would do better outside of their public school. Tuition is charged on a sliding scale. Seventy-percent of students are African-American.

“The bottom line is that there are many minority families that would love to have their kids in a Christian School, in a faith-based school, but they couldn't afford it,” Ratliff said. “Here is an opportunity where it can be affordable for them.”

Money for vouchers would come out of existing funding for public schools, but parents who oppose the idea say that means one family’s choice to go to private school would come at the cost of those who don’t.

Crystal Loving’s daughter attends Goodrell Middle School in Des Moines. It’s a comprehensive support school so her family would be eligible for a scholarship, but Loving said the her daughter and the funding she represents will stay at Goodrell.

“If there's work to be done in my school, then that let's do that work,” said Loving who is also a volunteer organizer with the Des Moines Community Legislative Action Team, which advocates for public schools. “I don't need to jump ship and think things are going to be better.”

Goodrell could use another counselor, a librarian and more teachers for smaller classes, Loving said, but with vouchers diverting money elsewhere, it would be even less likely that the school could afford them.

“Cuts to schools overall, and to Des Moines over the last 5-8 years have (made them) as lean as they can get and it's starting to, I think, have an effect in classroom,” Loving said.

In an updated fiscal note on the Senate bill, the Legislative Services Agency estimates that by the third year of the program 735 students may claim vouchers costing public schools about $2.6 million in funding statewide.

That’s not much considering state aid is worth more than $3 billion, said Trish Wilger, executive director of the Iowa Alliance for Choice in Education. In states with similar programs, Wilger said, the participation rate among eligible students is 1-3 percent.

“So it's not a mass exodus,” she said. “If people are satisfied with their local school, they'll be able to stay there and continue on with what works for them.”

Meanwhile, Wilger and other school choice supporters say competing for students will force public schools to improve.

Iowa State University education professor Gabriel Rodriguez says research shows conflicting results on whether school choice improves outcomes related to low-performing schools. Overall, he said, vouchers and charter schools are not a universal remedy.

“We don’t really see a bump in academic performance for students that are leaving their neighborhood schools and using a voucher to attend a school in a different community,” Rodriguez said. “The research doesn’t really show that there’s an increase.”

When students do show improvement, Rodriguez said, it’s often because their new schools offer something that likely would have helped in public school, like the small classes at Joshua Christian.

It’s not clear whether the Iowa House will take up the proposal as passed in the Senate.

Either way, Ain Grooms, who studies education policy at the University of Iowa, says lawmakers should look again at closing achievement gaps around race and income that are likely to persist in public schools even if some students leave.

“Whether or not students leave to go to charters and vouchers, we need to rethink or redo what public schools look like and how they’re serving marginalized groups anyway,” Grooms said.

Discussions about equality in education, Grooms said, should not be lost in debates over school choice.

Grant Gerlock is a reporter covering Des Moines and central Iowa