School choice, but who gets to vote?

Gov. Kim Reynolds’ website currently states, “School choice allows public education funds to follow students to the schools or services that meet their needs — and allows parents to choose what is best for their children…”

And it’s true that we already have a robust open enrollment system for Iowa public schools. Only about 7 percent of public school students were openly enrolled outside of their home district for the 2019-2020 school year, according to a report by the Iowa Department of Education. That’s 93 percent of Iowa public school children attending their neighborhood school district.

Given the option of open enrollment, the vast majority of parents in Iowa choose their neighborhood schools. And I agree with Reynolds when that same year, in January 2020, she boasted about the achievements of Iowa public schools, saying, “We have strong local control that’s ingrained in the communities and parents who care about their children’s education.” is very dear to my heart. We have the highest high school graduation rate in the country and more high schoolers on college courses than any other state.”

Vouchers are another policy tool designed to provide “school choice” for families and students, but school choice really means that non-public schools can make choices about which students they serve while also receiving public funds to fund them based on Discriminate on religion, gender, and sexual identity, disability, and other protected statuses under Iowa civil rights law. So when we talk about school choice as part of a coupon plan, we need to ask about choice for whom?

When One Iowa went through all the non-public school policies they could find in the state, 75 percent said, either explicitly or implicitly, that they would be willing to discriminate against LGBTQ families, with only 15 percent saying they did. Talking about competition between non-public and public institutions is not competition at all because we are not talking about institutions playing by the same rules. Any conversation of choice is then, they explained, “completely dishonest”.

Non-public schools have every right under Iowa law to teach in accordance with their religious principles, but nothing should oblige taxpayers to fund institutions that allow discrimination.

It’s more complicated when it comes to students with disabilities and those who need housing to be successful in school, since public and non-public entities are required to provide it under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

However, non-public schools that do not accept federal funding are not required to offer special education under the Education for Persons with Disabilities Act. In fact, as the parent of a child on an Individualized Education Plan, or IEP, I called a local private school to see how they would accommodate my special needs child. I was told that because “we don’t have special education here” they look at it on a case-by-case basis.

Let me be clear that no voucher will cover the expenses incurred by parents in purchasing private special education services for their children.

Also, what evidence do we have that a private market will emerge to serve children with the greatest needs, assuming that it will also be cheaper and more accessible?

While Iowans agree that taxpayers’ dollars should be spent on providing educational services, the competition that “school choice” programs are designed to generate is also diverting millions of dollars from educational programs toward marketing. In addition to providing payouts to marketers that expand private and charter programs to take advantage of taxpayer vouchers, the lack of transparency inevitably results in deceit and fraud.

In 2017, investigative reporters in Pennsylvania learned that twelve of Pennsylvania’s cyber charter schools combined spent more than $21 million in taxpayer dollars promoting their schools over a three-year period. One school alone spent nearly $11 million.

And in the latest high-profile charter fraud incident earlier this year in Oklahoma, the co-founders of Epic Charter Schools have been charged with racketeering and embezzlement, among other crimes, related to their public virtual charter school system: “Investigators allege that the co-founders of Epic Charter School are the taxpayers.” Have cost $22 million by building an “intricate criminal enterprise” through their management of charter schools, spending Learning Fund dollars on their personal credit cards and diverting money for political donations to further influence state education policy in their pockets to fill. The Oklahoma State Auditor called it “the largest misuse of taxpayers’ money in the state’s history.”

Iowans deserve better, and we have better than an education system riddled with discrimination, misinformation, waste, fraud and misuse of taxpayer dollars under the guise of “school choice” private education system, we should invest it in improving accessibility and equity and expand the school program to ensure the right of every child in Iowa to a free, decent, and excellent public education.

Nick Covington taught social studies at Ankeny High School from 2012 to 2022 and became the full-time creative director of the Human Restoration Project, an educational nonprofit. You can follow Nick on Twitter @CovingtonEDU