Central superintendent responds to governor’s school choice proposal

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State Rep. Anne Osmundson, State Senator Mike Klimesh, State Rep. Michael Bergan, Central Superintendent Nick Trenkamp and Central School Board President Jered Finley pose for a photo after a day discussing issues related to education, the school choice proposal and possible alternatives, including giving more local control to local leaders.

By Willis Patenaude, Times-Register

 

A recently announced proposal by Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds has reignited a debate around the usefulness and purpose of school vouchers, or in this case, what Reynolds is calling an Education Savings Account (ESA). The intent, as stated in her condition of the state speech, is to “create a taxpayer-funded ESA to help students and families pay for private school.” 

 

The proposal, which recently passed through all the key committees in the Iowa legislature, is centered on making $7,598 available for each student to pay for tuition, tutoring and other costs associated with attending a private school, which is also the same amount allocated for students in public school.

 

The announcement and pace at which the bill has progressed through house and senate committees has led to growing concerns about the effectiveness of what’s commonly known as voucher or school choice programs. One such opponent of the governor’s plan is Central Community School Superintendent Nick Trenkamp, who worries about the potential impact on rural schools like Central. 

 

According to the 2023 position paper by the Rural School Advocates of Iowa (RSAI) provided by Trenkamp, voucher programs “reduce resources to rural schools and save money for parents in urban centers.” It also argues that, when students leave public school, “student poverty and minority concentration are exacerbated.” 

 

The paper goes on to argue that spreading education funding around to more sources means a smaller portion will go to public schools, most notably rural schools, who “already fear the inability of the state to adequately fund public schools.” 

 

Trenkamp also questioned if such a program is even needed in Iowa, arguing several points. First, Iowa already has and offers school choice options and “ranks highly nationally on school choice.” This statement is based on a report published by the Heritage Foundation, which ranked Iowa ninth in the nation in terms of school choice, a ranking which predated the expansion of charter schools. 

 

Secondly, in Trenkamp’s view, the state lacks the population centers to justify such a program, which is designed mostly for urban centers. Iowa has just three cities with a population above 100,000, with only Des Moines being over 200,000. This draws attention to the problem of access, specifically related to the fact there are no “geographically viable nonpublic school options” for most rural students, but the impact on enrollment comes by way of funding. 

 

On this point, Trenkamp questions how the state government will be able to fund 33,000-plus nonpublic students “without that cost increase negatively impacting its traditional funding for public school districts.” 

 

Additionally, if Central lost one student per-grade level due to the program, Trenkamp estimated it would cost the school $100,000 in reduced funding for the district, while not reducing any expenditures. This funding, according to Trenkamp, would lead to a reduction in state supplemental aid, which is funded through income tax. In order to offset that loss, the only possible path forward would be an increase in property taxes, leaving Trenkamp to conclude that, under any voucher program, “property and landowners will end up paying more.” 

 

“Public funds going toward private education will come out of the same funding pot. With less funding available to Central, it makes it that much more difficult to offer the programs and staffing our community wants and needs,” Trenkamp added.

 

On the issue of funding, the RSAI unequivocally stated there is a negative impact on public school students. Among the impacts is the fact vouchers have drained “over $1 billion in public revenues from state coffers every year” since 2016. It also noted every dollar diverted toward a private institution could no longer be invested in the public education system. 

 

Then there is the eventual outcome of these programs expanding, which occurred in Ohio, where it began as a pilot program costing $42 million per year in 2008 before ballooning to $350 million in 2021. 

 

This expansion is already built in to Reynolds’ proposal, which is envisioned with a three-year roll out that first focuses on low-income families before opening the program to all students regardless of income. The potential for increased cost is built in to the proposal, as the state is expected to see a $1.8 billion reduction in revenue according to RSAI. 

 

A lack of funding also impacts other areas, including teacher and staff shortages, transportation equity, operational sharing, funding for preschool, mental health and school security. The RSAI concluded that “rural schools are already cutting staff and programs due to both declining enrollment and funding increases that haven’t kept up with inflation [and] this proposal will only make that worse.” 

 

Furthermore, there is an accountability issue at play, and whether or not private schools will be held to the same standards as public schools. As Trenkamp put it, “will the accountability of nonpublic schools and homeschooling parallel that of public schools?” 

 

This is also an issue addressed by the RSAI, which discusses the lack of oversight associated with voucher programs, including no publicly elected school boards, no regulation of expenditures and no public access to records or public meetings, making them unaccountable to the taxpayer, unlike public schools. 

 

Trenkamp noted how Central “staff regularly meets with parents and students. Central also has an intervention team that meets weekly and our school board has an appointed School Improvement Advisory Committee made up of parents and community leaders to provide input and make improvement recommendations, just to name a few.” 

 

A more basic criticism of voucher programs is the fact private schools can pick and choose who they take, which is somewhat problematic when they receive public tax dollars. Public schools have to take every student. According to the conclusion of the Economic Policy Institute Report from 2017, “research does not show that vouchers significantly improve student achievement.”  

 

However, there are arguments that support voucher programs. Chief among them is that it gives parents more freedom or choice in educational options for their children. On this issue, Trenkamp noted several times that he “fully supports a parent’s choice of what is best educationally for their child,” but the voucher issue goes beyond basic reality. 

 

Instead, it becomes an urban versus rural issue, specifically because there is a lack of private school options for rural students in the state of Iowa. In fact, according to the RSAI, almost 75 percent of rural areas have “little to no access to private schools.” 

 

“While I sympathize with their situation, my advocacy as a rural school leader and as a rural school parent is for my ‘community’ school district,” Trenkamp said.

 

“I support school choice and a parent’s right to choose what education is best for their child. My hope is that, if public tax dollars are used for this, the accountability to receive those tax dollars is the same,” he added in a separate interview.

 

As the proposal heads to a vote in the Iowa legislature, Trenkamp wants those elected officials preparing to vote to keep in mind how valuable rural schools are to the communities they are located in, arguing schools are “the heartbeat of their communities.” 

 

Rural schools are not just integral to the community, but they are also part of the fabric of the community, and what they provide is incalculable. 

 

When asked to expound on this point, Trenkamp replied, “Just last weekend, we had over 600 people come through our building. Those people ate at our restaurants and filled their vehicles up at our gas stations. Central is also one of the largest employers in our community. All you have to do is look at what happens to a rural community when they lose their school and you have the answer to this question.”  

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