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Educators react to School Choice bill

Passing of Gov. Kim Reynolds’ Senate File 159 in the Iowa Senate, also known as the “school choice” bill, has created a contentious debate around the allocation of taxpayer funds to public and private schools.

“When you divert funds from schools, especially now, when students’ lives have been disrupted in every aspect, it will mean that students in public schools will miss out on important opportunities they would have been provided,” Marshalltown Education Association President Anita Ringgenberg said.

Senate File 159 being an “education omnibus bill” packaging together several changes to the public system, has one particular aspect drawing attention from school boards and educators across the state.

The “Student First Scholarship” program identified in the bill would create taxpayer funded educational savings accounts for students in the bottom 5 percent of Iowa’s public schools to pay for tuition to a private school and other educational expenses.

Critics of the bill argue the Student First Scholarship is a means of defunding public schools, as more students enroll in private schools, public school districts would lose per pupil funding. The plan is estimated to cost public schools $2.1 million in funds of their $3.15 billion education budget in the first year with the number to grow in future years. Proponents of the bill have said this is not a fiscally significant loss, but opponents have said Iowa’s public schools have been underfunded already.

Marshalltown Community School District Superintendent Dr. Theron Schutte said he is adamantly opposed to public funds going to private institutions in any way, and says the Student First Scholarship program is argued on the pretense it will help marginalized families, but in reality will only help privileged families avoid tuition costs for private schools.

Schools in the bottom 5 percent of Iowa’s schools are identified through standardized testing by the Iowa Department of Education, but educators say standardized tests do not show a clear picture of the quality of education students receive. Many schools in the bottom 5 percent have a high percentage of students on reduced or free lunch, and a high percentage of students are learning English as a second language.

Marshalltown’s Anson Elementary School and Rogers Elementary school are identified in Iowa’s bottom 5 percent schools, and families sending children to those schools would be eligible for the Student First Scholarships.

“Despite all of these challenges that our kids have, at the end of their educational journey, they are positioned well for the next step in their life journey,” Schutte said.

Marshalltown Schools have an average graduation rate of 86 to 88 percent, with the state’s average of 90 percent being among the highest in the nation.

Principal of Marshalltown’s private St. Francis Catholic School Terry Eisenbarth said the legislation makes him uncomfortable due to its polarizing nature.

“I don’t like the flavor I’ve heard, and I don’t like the air I’ve felt,” Eisenbarth said.

He said the conversation around Senate File 159 has lacked clarity, with those on both sides of the bill using different language and evidence.

“People are talking different languages, they’re saying, ‘This is a voucher program’ or ‘This is an educational savings account’ and I think that’s up for the Iowa legislature and local government to debate,” Eisenbarth said. “I want to let the legislature hammer that out, I want to focus right on what I need to do, make sure that our kids are getting a good education right now.”

Eisenbarth echoed many of the sentiments made by Schutte on how to improve the quality of Iowa’s education.

“I’ve learned firsthand as an administrator that you can be in a school that because of a high number of low income families, a lot of English as second language learners, and poverty rates, and a lot of other societal struggles, that the school can’t fix all of it all at once,” Eisenbarth said.

Dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic and effects of the Aug. 2020 derecho, he said he has other priorities beyond Senate File 159.

“My main job right now is not to weigh in on something that lacks clarity. But what’s clear to me is that we’re in a pandemic. We have to educate kids. We’re going to see a dip in academic achievement that we’ve never seen before. It’s going to take us a while for us to recover,” Eisebarth said.

Contact Trevor Babcock at 641-753-6611 or tbabcock@timesrepublican.com.

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