Vouching for our public schools

School vouchers pay the tuition cost of public schools, but they can also pay for religious & private education.

School vouchers pay the tuition cost of public schools, but they can also pay for religious & private education.

Carolyn Klaus, Guest Columnist

Author’s Bio: Carolyn Klaus has lived in Ames over 50 years, has been a member of the League of Women Voters of Ames & Story County for 13 years and served on the board since 2012. She currently serves as board president.

Iowans have long been proud of our public education system—and with good reason. In 2020, Iowa’s graduation rate was 92%, placing us with just 2 other states at the highest national ranking. In the 1980s, Iowa led the nation in per pupil spending, demonstrating our commitment to quality education. Iowa’s state quarter says it all, with the words “Foundation in Education” printed on every coin.

Unfortunately, our commitment to public education appears to be faltering. This is demonstrated by the recent trend of underfunding our schools. For several years, our per pupil funding has fallen to less than inflation, and now we are not even in the top 20 nationally for per pupil spending. 

This trend is very concerning, as ongoing underfunding will eventually impact the quality of education. More than 82% of school funding in our districts goes to salaries and benefits for teachers, administrators, paraeducators, etc. 

This means when there isn’t sufficient funding, there isn’t much room for cuts other than for the people who care for and educate our children. In this upcoming legislative session, there is a plan to take even more dollars from our public schools with the proposed “Student First Scholarships,” which is just another term for vouchers.

The League of Women Voters have long been supporters of our public education system, and we oppose the use of tax dollars for vouchers to private & religious schools, as this will be detrimental to our public schools. This money should be invested to support more than 90% of our children who attend public schools.

Public schools educate ALL our children, whereas private schools can be selective in who they admit. Public schools are accountable to the public through elections for school boards and requirements to report academic results and have an annual public financial audit. Private and religious schools do not have the same accountability to the public, leading to the potential for fraud and waste.

Parents already have a right to a choice of private, religious or homeschooling for their children, and these choices are already being supported with public dollars. According to the Legislative Services Agency, the state’s annual spending on non-public education was at least $37.1 million dollars in 2018, a 53% increase since 2008. This support comes in the form of busing assistance, textbook purchase, scholarship support and a tax credit for those paying private school tuition.

It is not a “choice” if your child can be denied admission to a non-public school because of race, religion, disability or gender. There is no option for “choice” for those who live in the 239 school districts without an accredited private school. Taxpayers don’t have the “choice” to see how our tax dollars are being spent by non-public schools. The public does not have a “choice” in the selection of those governing non-public schools and making decisions on how our tax dollars are spent.

We cannot afford to continue to funnel more money away from our public schools. Our schools’ teachers and administrators have done an exceptional job with the limited resources they have been given. They are responsible for our most precious resource, our children, and we should be doing all we can to support their commitment and hard work. Our communities and towns depend on strong public schools. Communities that lose their schools through consolidation resulting from poor funding will lose a potent draw to keeping and/or bringing young families to their communities.

For our children and communities, we must start once again to prioritize our support for the public school system. This issue came up early in the legislative session which began January 9th, so contact your state legislators as soon as you can to encourage them to vote against vouchers and to vote for our children and communities.