Fact Checker: Iowa voucher bill doesn’t add transparency rules for private schools

Gazette Fact Checker Team | The Gazette >

Iowa lawmakers are stirring up debate again before adjourning the 2022 legislative session over Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds’ proposal to spend taxpayer funds on private school tuition assistance.

Graded an A

State Sen. Liz Mathis, D-Hiawatha, a candidate running to unseat Republican U.S. Rep. Ashley Hinson in Iowa’s new 2nd District, posted March 31 on Twitter criticizing the bill, Senate File 2369.

The legislation calls for roughly $55 million in state funding to be put toward 10,000 scholarships of around $5,500 each. These “Student First” scholarships would be given to moderate- and low-income families of public school students who wish to instead enroll in a private school.

Mathis posted:

“Iowans believe public dollars should fund public schools, but Rs in the state Senate passed a bill that:

  • Diverts $76M away from public schools where 93% of Iowans are educated
  • Undermines underfunded rural schools
  • Requires 0 transparency from private schools that get funds”

Analysis

Mathis’ second statement about the bill “undermining” rural schools is subjective, so the Fact Checker’s analysis will focus on the first and third claims.

On the first claim, that the bill “diverts $76 (million) away from public schools where 93% of Iowans are educated,” Mathis’ campaign team said she used an estimate of $76 million from an Iowa State Education Association Twitter post.

 memo assessing the bill’s fiscal impact, prepared by the nonpartisan Legislative Services Agency, estimates the bill will result in a decrease of $79.1 million to the fiscal 2024 state general fund as 10,000 students — those chosen to receive the scholarships — will no longer being counted in public school enrollment.

According to the Iowa Department of Education, there are 485,630 students enrolled in public schools in the 2021-2022 academic year, and enrollment in non-public schools totals 33,597 students.

Private school enrollment makes up nearly 6.5 percent of the total enrollment.

Mathis used the more conservative estimate on the decrease in funding to public schools, but the figures aren’t far off. She was correct on the enrollment data. Grade: A

Now we’ll look at the other claim that the bill “requires 0 transparency from private schools that get funds.”

Mathis and opponents argue there is limited transparency into whether public dollars are being spent effectively because public schools are held to specific standards and reporting requirements, while private schools are not. Private schools still must be accredited by the Iowa Department of Education.

Mathis’ campaign team pointed to language in the text of the bill stating that it “shall not be construed to expand authority to the state or any political subdivision of the state to impose regulations upon any non-public school that are not necessary to implement” the Student First Scholarship program.

The legislation contains a parent or guardian bill of rights. This section states that parents have the right to access and review information related to their child’s curriculum, educational materials used and process for removing books from libraries.

Additionally, under the proposal, parents are entitled to information about the instructors who teach their children, the school board and the people who contract with or otherwise receive funds from the district.

However, Senate Republican spokesperson Caleb Hunter said this parent bill of rights covers public and charter schools — but not private schools.

Non-public schools may either be accredited by the state or by a state-approved independent agency.

Both have to submit fall and spring Basic Education Data Survey, which includes information such as student enrollment, immigrants and English learner student count.

Those accredited by the state agency have to submit materials throughout the year such as a Comprehensive School Improvement Plan and a Nonpublic Consultation Agreement, which is a preliminary agreement for equitable services under programs that provide supplemental federal funds for the upcoming academic year.

Those that are accredited by a state-approved independent agency have “little to no reporting requirements” to the Iowa Department of Education, department communications director Heather Doe said.

Ultimately, Mathis is correct. There are fewer reporting requirements already for private schools, and this bill doesn’t add new transparency requirements for schools with students receiving the proposed taxpayer-funded scholarship. Grade: A

Conclusion

Language in the bill that would have added more transparency is not applicable to private schools. And Mathis is correct that the bill shifts millions away from public schools where a large majority of Iowans are educated.

We give Mathis an A overall.

Criteria

The Fact Checker team checks statements made by an Iowa political candidate/officeholder or a national candidate/officeholder about Iowa, or in ads that appear in our market.

Claims must be independently verifiable. We give statements grades from A to F based on accuracy and context.

If you spot a claim you think needs checking, email us at factchecker@thegazette.com.

Members of the Fact Checker team are Elijah Decious, Erin Jordan, Marissa Payne and Michaela Ramm. This Fact Checker was researched and written by Marissa Payne.

Fact Checker: Iowa voucher bill doesn’t add transparency rules for private schools