The Voucher Thing

They're trying to reform the wrong thing.

Don't get me wrong: this voucher nonsense seems like absolute dog shit that will not give me, as a parent, anything remotely resembling 'choice.' If your kiddo has an IEP or any other special needs, guess what? You don't get a choice. Private schools don't have to take those kids and most, it seems, don't. So while there might not be a lot of us, we're stuck with public schools. We don't get a choice.

Also, it seems like these vouchers come with strings attached. If I'm understanding it right, families can get 'em to pull kids from public school to send to private school, but what if I want to invest in my public school? Doesn't appear like I can do that. 

So the idea that 'we should fund students and not systems' is bullshit. You're funding some students and some systems and you're going to impact the quality of my kid's education to do so. Had Kimmie and company come out with some program to help low-income folks access private education, I might be a touch more sympathetic with the notion, but there are no income limits on this at all. If you're richer than four foot up a bull's ass*, you can get free money from the state to send your kid to the school you're sending them to anyway. It doesn't get more kids access to 'quality education', the practical upshot of this is going to mean that private school kids can go to school for free. 

The really enraging thing about all this: who the fuck asked for this? They loosened the regulations for charter schools a few years back (in the latter days of Branstad, I think) and we've got a grand total of three charter schools in the state. Not exactly a groundswell of growth here when it comes to charter schools. Something like 93% of students in Iowa goes to public schools and we've got (again, from what I can find on the interwebs,) two hundred and forty private schools of one flavor or another.

None of the alleged arguments for this make a lick of sense. Let's unpack, shall we?

  • Teacher's Unions: aren't all that powerful here and when the State GOP gutted public sector unions, they stopped short of repealing Chapter Twenty (I think that's what the law is called) because it makes teacher strikes illegal. (They also carved out exemptions for police, and fire, but not (at the time) corrections or campus police, because you know, reasons.)
  • School Boards: are open to the public and always have been as far as I know? I know right-wing media has been up in arms about some shenanigans in Virginia and other states, but nothing similar has been reported here, as far as I know. Also, this bill politicizes school board elections! You're going to have to register with a political party to run. I loathe this with every fiber of my being. You're going to fix your hysterical accusations of politics in the classroom by politicizing school board elections? SUPER. CAN'T WAIT. LOVE THIS. 
  • The Indoctrination Bullshit: Your kids are going to find out about sex and gender identity no matter the school you send them to. Can we have a talk about how we teach those topics in school and when it's appropriate to do so? Sure, but there are not, and have never been, litterboxes for furries in any school you can name me. If you want to have a serious discussion about curriculum- which is a legit ask, you need to stop believing what you read on the internet. (Also, not teaching about racism in America won't make it go away, and looking at the Civil War through rose-colored glasses doesn't obscure the fact that it was about slavery.)
Iowa has a finite number of kids and the pie is pretty full. Assuming there's an 'influx' of students to private schools, can the existing private schools handle it? I'm not convinced that Kimmie and Company have charter schools just waiting in moving vans to come in and build new buildings for all the kiddos either. If outside charter schools come in, they're going to be cutting into the existing pie and that means existing public and private schools probably aren't going to be thrilled by the competition, I'd imagine. (Plus again, we've got three charter schools. Three. Not exactly barnstorming the state, are they?)

Something like 41 counties in Iowa don't have a private school. (I guess kids down there are shit out of luck.)

All of this potentially helps some students and some families. It doesn't help all of them and it doesn't seem to have a roadmap for things like transparency and accountability and results. If a charter school doesn't produce better results, it should have its charter pulled by the state. (Hey, another good question: all this talk about failing schools, which schools in Iowa are failing? I get that your mileage may vary with your school, but all this talk about failing schools is awfully vague.)

The online arguments about this are just a flaming septic tank. "You went to private school" is not an argument. "Student loan forgiveness bad, but private school vouchers good" while I'm always okay with pointing out hypocrisy, it's an unhelpful argument as well as it conflates one issue (primary/secondary school funding) with another (the cost of college.) Some other good ones I've seen: "This goes against everything Robert Ray stood for." The current Iowa Republican Party doesn't care and he died in 2018. Not helpful. Then there's the rather ominous, "IT'S SCARED" (I'm assuming 'it' is referring to the public education system in the state? With our powerful teacher's unions that are evil, evil obstacles to reform? I don't know what state that's talking about, but it's not Iowa.) And finally, my favorite: "Private schools are good enough for you, but fuck the poor." (Again, that seems like someone not from Iowa.) 

Also: I saw someone posting pictures of the 'houses of the people Kim Reynolds wants to give your money to" on Twitter. No, I'm not going to link to it and that person should stop. It's creepy and I'm sure I can find houses in Iowa City that don't cost 400K with devoted Catholic families who would love to send their kids to a Catholic school but can't afford it. That's not a winning argument either.

However: asking who is funding this is a legit question to ask. Asking why they're not going to slip the voucher bill past Appropriations and Ways and Means (in a departure from the usual House procedures) is another great question. Questions should be asked as loudly as possible and with radio and television ads as well because yelling at people who agree with you about this issue on Twitter doesn't actually change any minds. 

The point of any education reform of this size should be about ensuring increased education success for all students. It's not clear that private and charter schools can do better than public ones- from what I've seen, they can be worse. It's also not clear to me that throwing more money at education is the answer, but I don't think it would hurt. What I do know is this: test scores for the United States as a whole aren't moving in the right direction from a global perspective and haven't been since I've been alive. Also, Iowa was an upper-tier state when it came to education once upon a time. Now we're slipping to the middle, if not the lower tier. 

So, what do you do about it? It's not the funding that needs to be disrupted- at least not in Iowa. Maybe in states with larger populations, a little bit of diversity in the educational marketplace might, maybe, bring about some of what school choice advocates are talking about. (I'm not particularly convinced that it would and I don't think there's strong evidence suggesting that either.) But the problem for Iowa goes back to that finite number of kids. I'm guessing here, but I would assume that any new charter school would need a minimum number of students to be considered viable. If the bulk of these vouchers is benefiting kids that already go to private schools, I don't see how that happens- especially if 93% of kids in Iowa go to public schools. Rural counties were less than thrilled with school consolidations- imagine how excited they're going to be about school closings?

This feels like a giveaway to Kimmie's base. The grumbly, white suburban parents who freak out about things like CRT and believe that if their kids never heard the word 'gay, lesbian or trans' they somehow won't end up gay, lesbian, or trans. I think the reason they want to slam this through as fast as they can is that they think the longer this sits there and the more it dissipates down to the general populace, the less they're going to like it and the more pressure rural Republicans are going to be under. I would be very, very surprised if it arrives on the Governor's desk in its current form because of that reason. 

But all of that brings me back around to my first point: they're trying to reform the wrong thing. I think schools, to their credit, are grappling with this already, but if there's one less from the pandemic that we can take away it's that some school districts realized that there's a not-insignificant portion of their students that will absolutely thrive and just fly in an online system while others will crash and burn in that system.

As much as I hate to say anything nice about Common Core math, the principle is sort of replicated there. It's maddening for parents because we were just taught addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division. What they (seem) to be aiming for is teaching kids multiple different ways they can use to solve any given math problem. 

That's sort of what I'd like to see happen in the education system. Kids learn differently and schools should be climbing all over each other to design learning models that can benefit all kids the most and maximize educational outcomes for everyone. But, here's the rub: take a class of thirty kids- let's say you divide it into six groups of five and each group learns best with a different learning model. How do you teach a class like that? Can you? How do you find the right balance of time during your day to make sure all the kids are getting the right level of instruction? How do you design a system like that?

Well, I'm not an educational expert, but I do know a thing or two about political science and I'd expect it would probably take more money. Carefully targeted amounts of money. With strings attached and qualifications to meet. But money, nevertheless. The better a school district does at developing a multi-modal learning model for all their kids that delivers the results gets more money.

That's what seems to make sense to me, but as we're all learning in these times of nonsense we live in, what's sensible and even fiscally prudent doesn't matter. What pacifies the craziest and noisiest part of your base, does.

*Yes, it's a real expression and yes, I stole it shamelessly from @38Godfrey. I make no apologies.

UPDATE (1/17/23): I found this on a Facebook group, Iowans for Public Education and it contained a response from a Republican State Legislator to his constituents' concerns about the bill:

Thanks very much for reaching out with your thoughts on the Governor's ESA proposal. I hear your concerns, but want to share some other details to think about with this specific proposal.
1. This bill makes some changes to the way we count students and results in additional funding being allocated to the public school. Currently, when a kid leaves a public school for private schools the state no longer counts that student anymore and the public school receives no funds. Under this new proposal, students who attend private school will still be counted in the public school's total. $1,205 per student attending private school in the district would be allocated to the public school.
2. Also new in this year's proposal is increased flexibility for how school districts can spend their money. Right now, the State earmarks school districts' budgets for specific programs and some of those dollars go unspent. The Governor's proposal will allow school districts to use these unspent funds to increase teachers' salaries.
3. House Republicans have a reputation at the Capitol for being very cautious when it comes to the state budget. We do not rush into new government programs or tax cuts without looking well into the future to see if those ideas are viable long term. Iowa's fiscal situation is very strong. Over the last five completed budget years (FY 18-22), actual tax revenue has exceeded state spending by $3.111 billion. With the Governor's school choice proposal, we have done our due diligence and determined that this program can fit within the long-term budget parameters and not impact the ability to fund other state programs like public safety, Medicaid, mental health, and future increases in the school funding formula.
For these reasons, this proposal will not just provide parents with education choice, but it will keep our public schools strong. Financially, our state is in a very strong position and I think providing a quality education deserves our investment.
Thank you for your email,
John H. Wills
Representative
House District 10

In the interests of basic fairness- because this seems to be a remarkably sensible, non-Culture War bullshit, non-hysterical answer about the bill, which I greatly appreciate, I would say this: 

  • Point 1, I'd like to see how the math shakes out on this. At least public schools would get something out of this deal, which is good (or at minimum, better than nothing), but I'm not sure it will add up to a meaningful replacement funding level over the long term. 
  • Point 2, seems very sensible indeed. Even if you get rid of everything else, this- especially if unspent funds can be pushed towards staff retention and teacher salaries could be a genuinely good thing. But again, the math. I'd have to see the math.
  • Point 3, I'm frankly dubious on because it sure doesn't seem like they're being cautious- but taking this Representative at his word, I'd want to see how much our state's financial picture will change when any COVID aid sunsets or runs out. Again-- the math!
I still don't support this. If your kiddo has an IEP or other special needs you are shit out of luck and I do not like politicians who try and sell me a line of bullshit and then tell me it's going to benefit my kids when it plainly won't. It will benefit some kids when any reform should benefit all kids and the lack of oversight and transparency requirements is frankly disturbing. If you're going to invest this much money on something like education, sure, fine, I can get behind that. However, if it's taxpayer money. You better be able to produce receipts showing progress and how well it's working. And you better be willing to change direction if it doesn't.

However, I know it wasn't an email responding to me, personally and Representative Wills isn't my Representative, but I appreciate a serious, non-hysterical response. It's a response worthy of serious consideration and worthy of a real debate, which, to be frank, I don't know if we're going to get.

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