Legislators visit with educators

T-R PHOTO BY ADAM SODDERS - State Rep. Mark Smith, left, and state Sen. Jeff Edler, left, share an update from the State Capitol with members of the Marshalltown Education Association Saturday morning.

It is a busy time for lawmakers at the State Capitol in Des Moines, with several high-priority bills making their way through each chamber.

One bill saw particular discussion at the Marshalltown Education Association legislative forum Saturday morning. State Sen. Jeff Edler, R-State Center, and state Rep. Mark Smith, D-Marshalltown, discussed the idea of education savings accounts (ESAs) for parents whose students have disabilities.

Smith said he has heard concerns from his constituents about the legislation, which would provide a fund for parents of students with an individual education plan (IEP) or who have a disability as defined by section 504 of the federal Rehabilitation Act of 1973 with public money to go toward a private education.

“I know Mark said ‘voucher’ which, that is not a correct explanation of what that bill was. It was an ESA, which is very different from a voucher,” Edler said. “An ESA allows for educational expenses to be reimbursed rather than just handing out money to someone as a voucher.”

Under Senate File 547, parents of students with special needs could apply to be reimbursed for many private school expenses through the account. The account would be publicly-funded with taxpayer dollars.

Edler said he has talked to parents and students from states with such accounts, and said many students with disabilities do not flourish in the public school system.

He said they and their parents should have more options on where to go to get an education and he is looking at “outside-the-box” solutions for those families.

“No matter who we are, we’ve got to realize not all kids are going to learn the same in a public or private environment. Some of those kids, maybe they have an IEP because they can’t get the right education in a public environment. Why shouldn’t we give them a chance to be successful with a different avenue?” Edler said.

Smith disagreed.

“I called it a voucher and I still call it a voucher,” he said. “I’m certainly not disagreeing with looking outside the box. What I’m disagreeing on is what’s progressive and what isn’t.”

Marshalltown Education Association member Sue Cahill said parents currently have plenty of choice on where to send their student to school.

“I feel that if your choice is to send your child to a private school, then that’s a private choice. My own children attended the Marshalltown Catholic school system and we paid for that, that was our choice,” she said.

Cahill said parents can choose to open enroll their students to another district, go to a private school or homeschool if they want. She said she does not want public money to go toward private education.

Both Cahill and fellow MEA member Brad Weidenaar also questioned whether many small private schools across the state have the resources needed to properly care for and educate special needs students.

Edler said his support of the bill in the Senate has to do with allowing parents and special needs students to find a school environment that maximizes student success.

“I have no agenda against public school whatsoever,” he said. “There is a multitude of ways to educate children, and I think if we limit ourselves to only looking inside the box that we’ve been in for 100 years, we’re doing a social injustice to these kids.”

Smith said he will continue to oppose the legislation.

“The value that we’ve placed on a strong public education system in our state is something that I will fight ferociously to protect,” he said.

Cahill said she also wants special needs students to have the best possible environment to learn in.

“I think we agree on every student deserves the best education they can have, but I am also a believer that if we want the best for that student, we have to make it the best for every student,” she said. “Instead of thinking ‘out-of-the-box’ for one student and fixing everything there, we need to make the box better so that all students can benefit from that.”

To look up legislation at the State Capitol, visit https://www.legis.iowa.gov/