While public schools are reeling from COVID-imposed complications, another bill from the legislature proposes taking away resources public schools already lack, and could cause discrimination based on race, class and disability.
During the debate about Senate File 159 last week, Senate Democrats argued in favor of teachers and their administrators while Republicans favored parents’ choices.
Some Republicans were swayed. The bill passed the Senate in a 26-21 vote. Republican Senators Driscoll, Shipley and Sweeney voted against the bill.
The bill has been assigned to the education committee in the House of Representatives, where it awaits further action.
Democrats centered their arguments calling on the legislature to support Iowa’s public schools.
“Our public schools are not failing, we’re quitting on them with this bill.” -Senator Liz Mathis
“Our long history of investing in Iowa students through public education is a part of who we are as Iowans. And that used to be a bipartisan idea,” Sen. Zach Wahls said. “Today however Iowa Republicans want our state to be more like other states instead of other states being more like Iowa.”
Sen. Liz Mathis pushed back against the idea that Iowa’s schools are failing, saying that every time she visits a school she sees success, innovation and teachers who care.
“Our public schools are not failing, we’re quitting on them with this bill,” she said.
Democrats discussed private schools’ ability to deny or unenroll students with more educational needs, those with disabilities, those with different religious backgrounds and LGBTQ students.
They also pointed out the bill would increase some parents’ choices, but that it would leave others behind in underfunded, smaller school systems.
Scott Ellison, an associate professor at the University of Northern Iowa, studies education and trends in education policy and reform, said that pattern is common.
“Not only do you not see any change in overall achievement, one thing that you do see is student sorting,” Ellison said. “What happens when you introduce school choice is that not all parents and not all families are equally to take advantage of these choice policies.”
Those would be places without private schools or families who can’t afford the costs that exist alongside tuition.
The research, Ellison said, shows repeated instances of “cream skimming,” or private schools choosing the highest-performing, easiest to educate students for admission. That leaves behind the students who need the most support.
He debunked many of the common arguments for school choice policies, including that they provide significantly better outcomes for students and schools.
Ellison said, after years of similar policies existing in other cities and states, there’s little evidence to suggest that there’s much difference between public and private schools when it comes to academic performance.
“In 1990, Milwaukee public schools were low-performing and profoundly unequal. And what they look like today is that they are low-performing and profoundly unequal,” he said. “More importantly if you compare the private schools that are competing with public schools, there’s no difference in terms of achievement scores.”
Ellison cited statistics for comparisons between public and private schools for proficiency in math and reading, and that—for both measures—public and private are separated by a percentage point, with the public schools having the higher one.
Ellison’s research also focuses on international education policy. Many other countries explore these school choice policies, he said, and those that implemented widespread voucher programs saw their performance fall in international rankings.
The bill would also favor urban areas with existing nonpublic and charter schools by directing more money there for the vouchers.
And if people tried to establish charter schools in rural areas, those schools would soak up students and teachers the rural schools can’t spare.
“Every student that leaves takes with them that little bit of resource that helps provide good programs for the whole community. If that happens, we’ll likely see smaller districts talk about consolidation and have trouble meeting accreditation requirements,” said Margaret Buckton, a lobbyist for rural schools with the Rural School Advocates of Iowa.
Republican Sen. Amy Sinclair pushed back on the accusation that she and other Republicans don’t care about teachers. She said her sister and her best friend are both teachers, and she knows how much work they’re doing.
“I heard so much from my colleagues about how we aren’t respecting the teachers and they’re overworked and they’re struggling in a pandemic,” she said. “And do you know what? I agree with every single bit of that.”
Sinclair also said that, like Democrats, she’s heard from a lot of parents about the bill, but in her case they’re in favor of it, and she refuted all of the claims about hurting rural schools or any that aren’t already failing. She didn’t specify what she meant by “failing.” But the bill does, defining them as schools identified for support and improvement under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act.
Sinclair also said Republicans are looking into other fixes, like recruiting more teachers of color to shrink the divide between teachers and students of color.
When it comes to the voluntary diversity plans, Sinclair claims it traps people in failing schools, and that’s why she supports the part of the bill that eliminates those programs.
She said that many “failing” schools used these plans, so parents can’t leave to find a better school. Sinclair also explained that many of those families are impoverished.
“These are not kids whose parents could do better for them anyway,” she said. “These are kids and families who are struggling.”
Sinclair also told the story of a girl who had been raped by someone at her school and isn’t able to transfer out because of the school’s voluntary diversity program.
Though it would make it easier for students to leave schools that don’t work for them, experts, including Ellison, have said diversity plans are what often prevent “white flight.” White parents moving their children to schools in the suburbs, and leaving city schools with fewer students and resources.
Republicans have said SF 159 will solve many problems for parents and students, but there’s potential for it to harm the public school system in several different, dramatic ways. A bandage over a wound that requires surgery, as it were.
Still, Sinclair said this bill is meant for students who are struggling and she thinks it offers help. She said every student deserves access to a school that allows them to meet their full potential.
“All kids in Iowa, all of our children deserve the opportunity to learn,” she said. “My esteemed colleague said we can’t give up on our schools and I vow to you I will not. I love public education. But what’s more important than not giving up on our schools, frankly, we can’t quit on these children while we’re working to improve that system.”