May 17, 2022

Statehouse legislators representing Jasper County talk school choice

League of Women Voters’ legislative gathering spurs concerns about public education

Education was a main talking point Jan. 22 at the legislative gathering organized by the League of Women Voters of Jasper County. Iowa House Reps. Jon Dunwell and Jon Thorup provided early insight into the issue which has already solicited concerns following the governor’s condition of the state address.

In her Jan. 11 address, Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds said she will introduce legislation that allows middle- and low-income families and students with an individualized educational plan (IEP) to receive a portion of the “per pupil” funds allocated by the state to move their children to the school district of their choice.

Dunwell clarified his position after a long discussion about education. He is “enthusiastically” looking at school choice, although it does not mean he supports everything connected with it. But legislators need to look at every option possible to continue to improve and enhance Iowa’s educational process, he said.

Which means Dunwell is willing to look at the governor’s proposal, the various opportunities the state can give communities and how Iowa can support parents who choose other educational sources like homeschooling or private schools. He also agrees with Reynolds that school choice should not be exclusive.

“If school choice becomes an option, every parent has an option to at least consider school choice,” Dunwell said. “If the means through an (educational savings account), I’m willing to look at that. But I do have concerns about autonomy. I don’t want tax dollars to become the constriction.”

Particularly upon accredited religious institutions offering education opportunities. Thorup added some private schools actually don’t want some of these funds to be moved because they are afraid to lose their autonomy, which some critics feel are threatened by regulations to standards and testing.

Since the Iowa Legislature just convened, Dunwell said the topic would be a great discussion at another meeting when lawmakers have a bill to respond to.

“Everyone from both sides of the aisle, both sides of the issue want to understand what it looks like. We all want to understand how it impacts our pubic schools. Even if school choice becomes a greater opportunity, we want to make sure we do it in a way that doesn’t damage our educational system,” he said.

MORE TALK ABOUT SCHOOL CHOICE

Kicking off discussions with statehouse legislators was a question about the governor’s reasoning behind school choice. Although Dunwell said he did not know what the governor is thinking, he was able to summarize the governor’s proposal in his own words.

“Last year she opened it up for greater opportunities for open enrollment and not confining that to certain schools. Now she is expanding upon that that and creating what she would call … educational savings accounts. And that would be roughly $5,300 a parent could use for educating their child,” Dunwell said.

Granted, the accounts would apply to people of “certain economic levels” and is not an unlimited resource. Dunwell added, the impetus of the governor’s proposal is to create opportunities for people of all income levels to have a choice in education and play a greater role in choosing where their children go to school.

When a participant in the League of Women Voters’ event asked if it could impact a local school district, Dunwell acknowledged it could.

“It could impact them in terms of their enrollment numbers, which impact the number of teachers. We just don’t know that impact,” he said. “I think other places that have done it they’ve seen — at least I think the number I heard was — 2 percent, maybe up to 5 percent change in enrollment as a max.”

IS CHOICE A THREAT TO SMALL SCHOOLS?

Another participant asked if the school choice “movement” is a threat to smaller school districts. She said it wouldn’t take too many students to open enroll to a larger district and threaten the life a smaller district. Thorup said there is already a lot of open enrollment across the state.

“And we did make that easier last year as part of the bill with the charter schools,” Thorup said.

Dunwell added the governor’s proposal said funds would go towards districts that have less than 500 students enrolled. The Republican legislator said the funds would be dispersed from a combined pot and divided among the smaller, rural school districts.

“So she does have something in her proposal that addresses that,” he said. “When the governor proposes something it takes a while to go through the education committee and the House and the Senate before we come up with a final proposal of what that’s going to look like.”

Contact Christopher Braunschweig at 641-792-3121 ext. 6560 or cbraunschweig@newtondailynews.com

Christopher Braunschweig

Christopher Braunschweig

Christopher Braunschweig has a strong passion for community journalism and covers city council, school board, politics and general news in Newton, Iowa and Jasper County.