Sibley-Ocheyedan sets eyes toward future

An Iowa Legislature bill that would give state funds to private schools passed the Iowa Senate last week. Sibley-Ocheyedan Superintendent James Craig said the bill would deprive some public-school districts of much-needed resources.

REGIONAL—Public and private schools in N’West Iowa await a turn in state funding after the Iowa Senate passed a school vouchers bill the week of Jan. 25.

The bill passed on a party-line vote in the Republican-controlled chamber and moves to the Iowa House of Representatives, where the GOP also holds a majority.

Sibley-Ocheyedan School District superintendent James Craig voiced disapproval of the bill, which he said wrongly prioritizes private education.

“As an educator, the public dollars should be spent on public schools,” Craig said. “As a property owner, I don’t want to see my taxes going to private schools.”

The bill offers scholarships for families in underperforming districts to either home-school their children or enroll them in a private program. Craig said his schools will not be affected much, but he is wary of the way the state education policy is trending.

“When it comes to supplemental state aid, we’re not seeing what districts need,” he said. “The concern for us down the road is the millions of dollars not coming to public schools.”

For private schools, the bill is an opportunity to bolster not just the school’s enrollment but parental satisfaction, according to Wayne Dykstra, head of school at Unity Christian High School in Orange City.

“Philosophically, this bill does open the door to significant change. It allows tax dollars to follow the student to a school of the parents’ choice,” Dykstra said.

Valuing “choice” was Gov. Kim Reynolds’ focus when she championed the voucher policy in her Condition of the State address on Jan. 12.

“School choice shouldn’t be limited to those who have the financial means or are lucky to live in a district that’s confident enough to allow open enrollment,” Reynolds said. “So let’s make choice an option for everyone.”

Dykstra said he does not expect much to change for his school, but he welcomes “the opportunity to move in this direction.”

Jeff Alesch, 7-12 principal at Gehlen Catholic School in LeMars, said, in his view, the issue is about making it easier for parents to enroll their children where they want.

“It would really help our parents out financially, and as a school, we support people going here,” Alesch said. “I believe in school choice. People should be able to choose where their kids’ go to school.”

Sheldon School District superintendent Cory Myer said that Iowa families already have options for their children’s education.

“It is not a question of school choice, as open enrollment in the state of Iowa already exists,” Myer said. “Students are allowed to go to the school of their choice and the money already follows them to that public school.”

Craig added a similar statement, saying the solution is to support school districts with taxpayer money instead of shifting funds to nongovernment organizations.

“Public dollars for private entities concerns us,” the Sibley-Ocheyedan superintendent said. “The saying now is ‘Public dollars for public schools, period.’ I echo that.”

School standards also play a part in the voucher conflict. For families seeking a faith-based education, the bill offers a previously unaffordable opportunity.

Brian Verwolf, head administrator at Western Christian High School in Hull, said he appreciates the state-level support for schools such as his.

“We just want kids who desire Christian education to come here,” he said. “The exciting part for us is that it would remove the financial barrier.”

Verwolf said the sticker price of a private education turns off many potential clients and that vouchers would extend opportunities to more people. More state funding also would spark competition, he said, and hypothesized that academics would be pushed to higher standards in both sectors.

“If we can remove that barrier, it will help all schools,” Verwolf said.

In addition to noting that open enrollment already is accessible in much of Iowa, MOC-Floyd Valley School District superintendent Russ Adams said that it is not the state’s place to help all schools.

“Public schools are obligated to abide by certain guidelines that are not always applied to private schools,” Adams said. “If we want to be treated the same, then we need to use the same rules.”

He said the legislation implies that all Iowa schools should be treated the same by the state, regardless of sector. Adams said that he is respectful of the role that both types of school play in their communities, but he maintained that it is important to keep funding separate between church and state.

“Fair competition means a level playing field and I don’t believe this is the same as that,” Adams said. “There are great opportunities for both public and private schools, but we’re using different rules.”