by Connie Ryan Terrell
Des Moines Register, Iowa View, 7.16.13
From all the pounding of chests and declarations of victory from both sides of the aisle, one would think the 2013 education reform bill passed by the Iowa Legislature and signed into law by the governor was the panacea for Iowa’s education system. The truth is a large portion of the legislation will come back to haunt the Legislature.
The education reform bill was a broad, meandering piece of legislation that included items such as student assessments, teacher compensation guidelines and allowable growth. The bill also included special interest demands, such as decreasing parental accountability by making assessments for home school children optional, limiting the state’s oversight of non-public schools, permitting home school parents to teach driver’s education, and allowing home school parents to teach up to four unrelated students with little oversight by the state.
In separate legislation, increased financial support was provided to non-public schools through direct funding and tax credits. Together, the legislation moves our state further down the road toward privatization and inequity in education, fueled by the misleading notion of “parental choice.”
As an example, any parent can choose to home school their child. The oversight of the student’s education includes a partnership between the family and the public education system. The partnership supports a parent in teaching the child at home but also ensures the parent successfully fulfills his or her obligation through assessments.
The education reform weakens that partnership. Now, the state has limited oversight and parents have no real accountability. One hopes all home school parents have the capability to fulfill the promise of a good education. However, logic should tell you not all parents can meet that obligation, and now the children in those families will undoubtedly fall through gaping cracks.
Privatization of education continues to be prioritized in line items of the state budget. Parents who choose a non-public school still receive the benefit of state aid through transportation, textbook and technology supports.
Additionally, Iowans are encouraged to make contributions to benefit non-public schools through school tuition organizations and receive a tax credit. Line items and tax credits continue to grow, using precious public tax money to subsidize private education choices.
Nationally, there is momentum toward privatization of education in our country. Privatization is a strategy of religiously conservative organizations to replace public education with private options that support their world view. Conservative organizations find themselves strangely in bed with for-profit businesses.
Religious conservatives tout parent choice, home schooling, online options, vouchers and charter schools. For-profit businesses have cropped up across the country to fill a niche and make a buck on the backs of children through private schools, charter schools and online learning. It’s a marriage made in heaven.
Progressives fall easily into the trap. What’s the harm? Isn’t choice a good thing? Shouldn’t parents have the final say?
Although to date, Iowa has placed limits on the business side of this equation, legislators continue to chip away at our state’s responsibility in oversight and accountability with home schooling and non-public schools. Each of these strategies alone may appear to do only minimal harm, but together they significantly weaken our educational system.
When the state creates bad public policy by relinquishing oversight and reducing accountability and continues to shift public funds from public education to private entities through allocation or credit, the entire education system is weakened. This negatively affects all students, but the greatest burden is placed on students in public schools.
Iowans believe in our schools and understand that a healthy and vibrant public education system is the greatest equalizer for all students. Legislators can claim a victory, but, in reality, education in Iowa lost this year.
Future legislative sessions should consider reversing course and put state oversight and parental accountability back into the private education part of the equation. In addition, with our country’s long tradition of separating the institutions of religion and government, the state should stop funneling public resources directly or indirectly to non-public schools, most of which are religiously based. It’s simply bad public policy.
CONNIE RYAN TERRELL is executive director of the Interfaith Alliance of Iowa. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org.