Michael D. Haluska, Superintendent

Decorah Community School District

EDITOR’S NOTE: Over the course of the next several months, Decorah Superintendent Mike Haluska will be writing in-depth analyses of the pertinent “needs” affecting the District – everything from facility issues, to bullying to the way math is taught. The Decorah Community School District recently completed a needs assessment survey that was conducted by the Iowa Association of School Boards. Haluska’s observations and opinions will be published exclusively in Decorah Newspapers.


   I don’t know how many of our readers are up for the early morning news, but I’m a faithful viewer of KWWL virtually every weekday morning beginning about 5:30. It’s been interesting during this current legislative session to see the various advertisements/commercials that attempt to attract attention for one political aim or another. 

Yet, there is one that draws my ire more than any other.  And if you believe in public schools as a cornerstone of democracy, it should concern you equally. That is the ad sponsored by the Iowa Alliance for Choice in Education, a group advocating for the creation of Education Savings Accounts.

Educational Savings Accounts, or ESAs, are a topic that have been gaining momentum in the Iowa Legislature over the past few years, but have more momentum now than ever, thanks to the sizable number of legislators who currently either send their children to private schools or home school their children all together. 

You may be wondering what an ESA is? Simply put, Education Savings Accounts, also known as vouchers or education savings grants, are state taxpayer dollars that are diverted away from public schools and all other state funded programs to subsidize nonpublic schools, private instruction, or home schools. In this legislative session, public universities, community colleges, and AEAs were defunded. I’m pleased PK-12 education didn’t receive the same fate, and we were told to be thankful for the 1.1 percent ($40 million) investment we received. Yet somehow there may be funds to provide ESAs for the roughly 43,000 students statewide who are either educated in a private school (usually parochial) or home schooled, many of whom have absolutely no accountability.


What
are
myths?

So, what are some of the myths we commonly hear about school choice? First is that ESAs/vouchers do not affect funding for public schools or other state programs. In reality, money for ESAs/vouchers would be a new expense in the state budget. Funding for ESAs/vouchers would need to come from tax increases, a deduction from the current public school budget, or a reduction in other departments’ funding. 

Giving more taxpayer money to private schools means less money for our public schools and other essential state services. The state Legislature is currently under-funding public schools, so there is NOT enough money to fund ESAs without pulling funds from public schools.

Another myth is that Iowa public schools are fully funded. The question really becomes, what is meant by “fully funded?” For seven of the last eight years, public school funding has seen increases below the cost of inflation. The insufficient funding has forced cuts at the local level, including staff reductions and elimination of programs, leading to larger class sizes and consolidation of rural schools.

Myth No. 3 is that ESAs enable every child to choose a school and that all schools will be open to all children. This could not be further from the truth! ESAs/vouchers do not guarantee a child can afford an alternative to public schools. Families would still face obstacles of providing transportation, which becomes a more pronounced issue in rural areas, and paying the remaining share of tuition.

Myth No. 4 is that ESAs improve outcomes. Instead, there is no nonpartisan evidence to date that ESAs/vouchers provide a route to better education or higher achievement by students. This topic is at the heart of the book written by Christopher and Sarah Lubienski titled, The Public School Advantage. In it the authors analyze two large-scale, nationally representative datasets that counter the notion that charter schools and private schools are academically superior. 

Without going into great detail, after accounting for the demographic differences among different school sector populations, traditional public school students performed just as well in math as did their private school peers. And even though private school children tend to arrive at kindergarten a bit better prepared than their public school peers, public school students make up the difference during elementary school. 

Another publication writes of a study from the National Center for Education Statistics looking at where the U.S. ranks worldwide in reading, math, and science. It also looks at a report from the Horace Mann League and the National Superintendents Roundtable, which compares economic equity, social stress, support for families and schools, and student and system outcomes in nine G-7 countries. These studies show the proposed “crisis” in public education simply doesn’t exist.


You
are
being
misled

Myth No. 5 makes us want to believe that ESAs and school choice programs would benefit public school students in Iowa and ESAs do not harm public schools. Again, you are being misled. ESAs/vouchers would hurt every public school student in Iowa. ESAs do not improve educational outcomes and, simply enough, ESAs/vouchers divert state taxpayer dollars away from public schools and public school children.

Quite possibly my biggest complaint about this type of legislation is that private schools, even the accredited ones, and more importantly children being home schooled, are held to far lower standards than are Iowa’s public schools. With that in mind, I’ve asked our legislators, as well as the leadership in both houses, some questions about ESAs that I think everyone deserves to know.  

How do you plan to ensure the education received by these individuals meets the rigor found in our public schools? If they are receiving funding, I’m assuming all the requirements for public school transportation will go by the wayside? The same General Standards found in the Iowa Administrative Code (281--12.1(256)) as they relate to equal educational opportunity will apply? Minimal hours of instruction will hold for IPI (Independent Private Instruction) students, just the same as they do for the young people we serve in public education? How about the IAC standards found in 281—12.5(256) which establish the educational program for pre-kindergarten, kindergarten, elementary program grades 1-6, junior high program grades 7-8, and the high school program grades 9-12? 

Again, if they are receiving per-pupil funding akin to public school students, shouldn’t their education be regulated to the same degree? As of now, private high schools are not subject to the vocational education requirements of three sequential units in at least four of the six service areas. These are, by far, the most costly programs in our public schools. Yet, shouldn’t that be a consideration for students in private schools or home schooled students who are also receiving public funding? After all, that funding should be providing for the highest quality of educational opportunity available. And, of course, I’ve not even begun to dig into the necessary provisions for Title I and Special Education programming.


Have
no
safeguards

Myth No. 6 is that the state could prevent misuse of ESA funds. ESA/voucher funds that go to private or home schools are not audited and have no safeguards to prevent against fraud. Whereas public schools have to be 100 percent accountable to taxpayer dollars and adhere to the state’s mandated oversight and standards, private and home schools do not have this accountability. 

Non-public schools are exempt from the state’s oversight and do not have to, as previously written, meet the same educational or assessment standards. So, don’t you find it odd these funds have virtually no safeguards? After all, there will be approximately $6,500 per pupil needing assurances the money is either going toward education or into a savings account that cannot be tapped until the student(s) either attend a private/parochial school who meets the Chapter 281 IAC regulations or attend an accredited post-secondary institution. 

Without such assurances, what prevents the unauthorized use of the funds? What happens to the remaining ESA funds in an account after a student has completed either a licensure program, an AA degree, or a BA/BS degree? Do the remaining funds return to the state or can they be used as a down payment on a new home or to purchase a car? Aren’t these questions that should be answered publicly so everyone knows how the public funds are being used?

Given the political backing this type of program seems to have at the state level and President Trump’s appointment of a Secretary of Education whose entire platform is based upon the concept of “choice,” I ask our readers who support public schools to be wary. I can foresee a program beginning this year that rolls the program in over a period of 3-5 years so as to minimize the amount invested in a given year. Supporters of ESAs may be patient enough to wait another year, but I find that hard to imagine given all the television advertising that’s occurred this year. Out-of-state money isn’t going to be funneled into Iowa unless passage of such legislation is clearly on the horizon.

Before the decimation of Chapter 20, our negotiations in the Decorah District had taken on a collaborative approach to problem solving. With any language item brought forth, we began the discussion by trying to answer the question, “What problem are we trying to solve?” Let’s apply that same approach with the issues of ESAs. 


Open
enrollment

     We already have “choice” in education in Iowa. Within the public schools, we have open enrollment. Parents have the “choice” to send their children to private/parochial schools. Yet, it is exactly that — their choice! I’m not sure why public education should suffer funding reductions when parents either choose a school where the premise for existence begins with one religion or another, or a home school environment where zero accountability exists. 

     Again, what problem are we trying to solve? If someone wants to maintain the problem is equity, then let’s make it truly equitable and everyone, from public school to private school to home school, plays by the exact same rules and regulations. Anything less than that should be fought vigorously by the taxpayers of the Decorah Community School District and all supporters of public schools throughout the state of Iowa.

For more information on this topic, I suggest you check this website, from which I’ve drawn a portion of my information in this article. The site is Parents for Great Iowa Schools and their website is http://parentsforgreatiowaschools.com/pgis-action-alerts/.