LTE: ESAs Are Not the Answer

Advertisements began airing on TV and radio stations across Iowa promoting the creation of Education Savings Accounts (ESAs). The commercials use the typical conservative think-tank, American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) message to sell them. Funders of the commercials don’t want Iowan’s to know what an ESA means to the future of Iowa’s public schools and to taxpayers.

In 2002, I moved from Iowa to teach for Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS), the birthplace of school vouchers. In 1990 vouchers were sold as the panacea to the challenges of educating children in Milwaukee. The reality is that vouchers have done nothing to improve the quality of education for the nearly 30,000 students attending schools that are a part of the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program.

During my first year of teaching for MPS, I learned about the influx of students after the state mandatory attendance date, otherwise known as the 3rd Friday. On the following Monday, parents began showing up to register their children for school. Parents needed to find a new school for their child due to him/her having behavior problems; not following homework requirements; or struggling academically (the child had or needed an Individual with Education Plan). So they were forced to leave their voucher school and return to public school.

Unfortunately, the money the voucher school received from the state when the student started there did not follow the child to the public school.

The reality of the infamous “After 3rd Friday” influx of students wasn’t what surprised me the most. It was the lack of quality control of schools that operated under the program and the lack of teacher qualifications.

When I began teaching for MPS, the only requirement for teachers and administrators at voucher schools was holding a G.E.D. Schools did not have to be accredited, school testing was not required and there was a lack of adequate financial and attendance oversight. It is no wonder that 20 voucher schools closed during my nine years as an educator with MPS. Unfortunately, the schools closed mid-year, giving parents less than a week notice to find a new school. Another 20 voucher schools in Milwaukee have closed since I moved back to Iowa in 2011.

Wisconsin has had almost no success in introducing accountability and transparency for voucher schools. In a compromise, voucher schools were eventually required to hire educators and principals that held Bachelor Degrees (still no requirement for actual training to be educators), and a study was to be conducted that compared voucher school students taking the Iowa Test of Basic Skills to MPS students taking the Wisconsin Knowledge and Concepts Examination (not an apple to apple comparison).

The Milwaukee Parental Choice program created devastating financial hardships for the students of MPS and the taxpayers of Milwaukee. The citizens of Milwaukee were forced to pay for two school systems, despite not ever being allowed to vote if this was something they truly wanted.

The MPS system was slowly defunded by the voucher program. Most elementary schools did not have art, music, gym, school nurses, and most schools lacked guidance counselors at all levels. However, the data showed that MPS still outperformed the voucher schools when some very limited accountability for voucher schools was put in place. Neighborhood public schools were forced to close due to lack of enough students enrolled, which undermined the strength of the communities children grew up in.

There is no non-partisan research that supports school vouchers as having a positive influence on student learning. Even still, the lowest performing vouchers schools (which perform well below MPS schools) do not face prospect of closure, unlike the lowest performing MPS schools, which might be turned into a voucher school.

Now, ALEC and Americans for Prosperity want to bring vouchers to Iowa. Financially, Iowa can’t afford to pay for two school systems when lawmakers say they can only afford a 1.11 percent SSA increase for public schools for the 2017-18 school-year.

Before the Iowa Legislature begins to discuss ESA’s, it first needs to increase accountability in homeschooling laws, which are amongst the weakest laws in the country.

Iowa doesn’t know how many children are being homeschooled because, the Independent Private Instruction (IPI) Home School program allow parents to avoid registering/enrolling their child in a home school program with the local school district or an association. There are no accountability measures put in place for IPI homeschooling to ensure parents are educating their children, or providing a home free of abuse or neglect.

From my experience as a teacher in Cedar Rapids, children are falling through the cracks, and school districts can do nothing about IPI home schooled children. ESA’s are not in the best interest of Iowa’s future. Fully-funded public schools that serve all children are the answer.

-Kelly McMahon, Cedar Rapids

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