Facts disprove claim Iowa school choice a success

by Rob Sand, Auditor, State of Iowa

Common sense says we can’t judge an outcome before a program begins, but I wasn’t surprised to read a guest essay in the Sept. 3 Des Moines Register proclaiming that “it’s safe to say we were wrong” if we thought Iowa’s new vouchers program would harm our public schools.

I wasn’t surprised because common sense has never been part of the push for vouchers in Iowa.

Here, instead of political talking points, are actual facts about the program’s rules and structure.

• First, unlike public schools, no private school is required under the law to admit any student. That’s right: “School choice” means private schools get to choose their students. Those who want to use the program only get to if a private school allows them.

• Second, the program is not popular. 63 percent of Iowans opposed it in the last Des Moines Register/Mediacom Iowa Poll to ask about it. Did you see the news that enrollment was “high?" When you expect 1 percent to apply and 2 percent do, I suppose you can spin it that way. But the fact remains only roughly 2 percent of Iowans currently attending public schools even applied to use the program in its first year. If I championed something that kicked off with a 2 percent participation rate, I would be embarrassed.

• Third, private schools are given extraordinary loopholes that gut oversight and transparency for the public. They will receive tax dollars with no obligations for audits, opening meetings, or open records. The only thing this law makes illegal for private schools to do once they get your tax dollars as tuition is to give a rebate. If they spend your tax dollars on steak and wine dinners for parents in an attempt to recruit students, that will be legal and it will be hard to find out about. Same if they want to spend your tax dollars on new uniforms for every football game. Here at the State Auditor’s Office, we call out public schools every year for misspent money that is far less wasteful than these examples. This law creates a double standard.

At the State Auditor’s Office, we call out public schools for misspending money every year because they are run by human beings. I don’t think it is the case that the people running private schools are the ones who are free from sin. They’ll misspend money too, but the supporters of this law wrote it so that it will be difficult to find out when that happens.

Add all this up, and none of their justifications for defunding our public schools make sense. “Marketplace” and “competition” are mere buzzwords, not reality, when different rules apply to each “team.” If the Green Bay Packers got to be offsides any play they wanted and their opponent didn’t, we wouldn’t call it competition. The supporters of vouchers should either make private schools accept any student that applies and maintain the same transparency requirements for both public and private schools, or quit claiming this is “competition.”

Again, we can’t judge outcomes before they exist, but looking at the rules of the game show a program lacking in oversight and in fairness. Perhaps the Republicans who supported this bill should about-face and do what the Republican governor of Nebraska did, what all Iowa Democrats would support: Increase our investment in public schools instead of funding private ones. That will pay great returns for our kids and our future.

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