The legislative session is currently about 4 weeks past its expiration date. The hold up continues to be SF 2369, which is the bill that contains the voucher proposal. It appears the House doesn't have the votes to advance the measure, largely because those lawmakers recognize that this proposal will do real harm to small schools around the state. The pressure is on, and proponents are making a lot of claims that lack context. I want to spend a little time today providing that context.
Voucher proponents suggest that the current school choice proposal won't cost the state any additional revenue while at the same time claiming it won't hurt the local public school district. If you think about this clear eyed, you have to understand both can't be true. Here's why. First, it is accurate the proposal won't cost the state any additional capital outlay. This is because the revenue will be shifted from the local public school to the 'choice school'. That's what makes the second half of this argument false. A shift of funding from public to private does in fact hurt the public school because they now have fewer dollars to work with. Proponents counter with the accurate statement that the public school no longer has the main 'cost element' [the student] in the building to educate. But that doesn't mean it isn't a real cut with consequences. The argument fails due to a lack of understanding about how economies of scale work. How does one go about cutting 1/20th of a teacher? The proponent seems to believe a direct correlation exists where it most certainly does not. There is strength in numbers and it is important to understand that some school programs are simply more expensive than others to operate. Generally speaking, high school courses in smaller schools are more expensive because they are specialized, have smaller sections, and require greater capital outlay. Funding a Family and Consumer Science classroom, Industrial Technology, or Computer Science class is not the same as equipping first grade. The cost per pupil to run an AP Calculus classroom of 5-6 students is much higher than a classroom of 23 third graders. So yes, the shift in funds will hurt public schools and cause them to rethink programming and likely cut some specialty courses because the subsidization factor [and strength of numbers] is diminished.
A couple of weeks ago, I saw a tweet that claimed the voucher program will ultimately cost taxpayers less. That deserves some unpacking and context. It's planting season, so I think the analogy of corn growing provides us a good example. If I skip fertilizer and weed control, my cost of input for a corn field is going to be quite a bit less than the farmer down the road who doesn't skip those crucial steps. I may feel pretty good about all the money that I've saved. But, since we are all from Iowa we know how this story is going to end. Come late September, I'm going to pay a pretty stiff penalty for my cost cutting.
It's all about the inputs, right? Schools are no different in this regard. If nonpublic schools aren't held to the same standards in terms of public accountability, admissions policies, and transparency; then right off the top they aren't going to have the same inputs. The most recent Legislative Services Agency (LSA) fiscal note for the transparency bill suggested a cost to public school districts of around $16 million. Nonpublic schools have specifically been exempted from this proposal. In fact, when it comes to education policy in the State of Iowa, most of the time there is a carve out exemption for non-public schools. Of course it will cost less! And by the way the aforementioned transparency proposal included no appropriation which makes it an unfunded mandate. This means of course public schools will have to find a way to pay for it, notwithstanding the fact the main 'cost element' has been removed vis-à-vis a voucher.
The other part of the argument that it will ultimately cost less is gleaned from a bit of insider information. As you know I spent first 15 years of my career in the nonpublic world. I also used to have a supervisor that would cringe anytime someone would make the claim that non-publics were in some way superior because of the fact costs were less. Let's talk about that for just a moment. As I have stated many times over, the business of education (public or private) is very labor intensive. So labor intensive in fact that over 80% of the inputs discussed in the preceding paragraphs are tied up in personnel. Any guesses why that former supervisor would cringe when talking about costs being less? The salary differential is significant. During my time as a parochial school administrator I was in a losing battle for talent. Frankly, our school served as a great training ground for educators. I would hire them right out of college, get them trained up and fully licensed only to see them depart for one of the local public schools. Why? Much better pay (oftentimes more than 20%), benefits, support systems, and overall inputs. In this labor market and battle for talent, do we really want to exacerbate low wages for educators? We've all heard the saying 'A rising tide lifts all boats'. I hope the inverse isn't true.
Finally, proponents make the claim this bill is needed in order to help families who cannot otherwise afford private school. If that were true, this bill misses the mark by a longshot. The bill provides eligibility to families of students with a household income 400% of the poverty level. For a family of 4, that is $111,000. To put that in perspective, the median household income in Iowa is about $62,000. Believe it or not, that isn't even the main issue! The way the proposal is crafted, it permits families to accumulate the voucher funds year over year while still paying tuition at the school of their choice. At graduation, they can simply take those accumulated funds and use them to pay tuition at a postsecondary institution. One of the legislators who is a proponent of the bill states it best right here. See bullet point 2, sub 2. Frankly I'm not sure this talking point was meant to be shared publicly, particularly since the sentence begins with the phrase, "For our caucus only"! Not only does this hurt public schools for all the reasons that have already been discussed, it does no favors for non-public schools either. In fact, it goes beyond harm to the institution. It actually puts families of public school students and other tuition paying students at a disadvantage by providing 'families with means' money they don't otherwise need to pay for college.
Today the Senate is meeting to move the Appropriations bills out of committee making them eligible for full consideration in that chamber. For the last four weeks, the Senate has refused to move appropriations until the House took up SF 2369. The House has not done that yet. This means a deal was made behind the scenes to move the bill forward quickly once the House reconvenes, or that the Senate has finally realized the House has held firm and recognized this is a very bad idea that will cause real harm to our system of public schools. If you haven't reached out to House members, please do so soon and ask them to oppose SF 2369.