Residents press local lawmakers on school funding, ESAs

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Jan. 30—CAMANCHE — Education, specifically the Students First Act, was the main focus at Saturday's legislative coffee that brought together three local lawmakers and their constituents at Camanche City Hall.

The event is the first of three that will take place in Camanche throughout Iowa's legislative session and offers a time for residents to meet with Rep. Norlin Mommsen, R-DeWitt; Rep. Tom Determann, R-Clinton; and Sen. Chris Cournoyer, R-LeClaire.

The session capped a week in which the Iowa House and Senate passed the Students First Act, under which any Iowa student who wants to attend a private school could use public money to pay for tuition or other expenses. Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds signed the bill into law Tuesday.

Cournoyer, Determann and Mommsen all voted yes for the bill's passage, agreeing that all families should be able to send their children to private school, not just those wealthy enough to afford the tuition. If a student opts for private school, their $7,600 in per-pupil support would follow them to the private institution, but the plan would send $1,200 to the public school district where the student resides.

Opponents say lawmakers have provided inadequate support for years, forcing districts to make budget cuts. They said the new plan would worsen funding problems for public schools.

The three local lawmakers on Saturday were asked why they voted for the bill even though 75% of Iowa school children don't have access to private schools; private schools are not held to the same standards as public schools; and polls, some up to 70 percent, were pointing to a majority of Iowans coming in against the legislation.

"How high would this need to be for you to put your constituents over your partisanship," asked one attendee.

"How can I justify it," Determann asked. "I ran on parent choice and I got elected. ... I was following through on my campaign. Some of it, I think you can see, on the governor's campaign, she stressed that she won by 18 percentage points. The way we see it, the majority wanted it and that's what they got."

"I justify it because I really feel there should be a choice in Iowa," Cournoyer said. "And I understand that there are choices for students in Iowa. You can go to your local public school. You can open enroll out to another neighboring public school district, you can homeschool. You can send your students to private school, but only if you can afford it. This educational savings account is going to help those parents that can't afford it be able to have that choice."

She said she believes in the public school system, her mother and grandmother were public school teachers, she is a former school board member and her children attend public schools.

"It is important to me that we have the choice for all students," Cournoyer said. "I believe most parents will still choose to send their kids to the public schools where they pay their property taxes.

"We have great schools in Iowa, great public schools with great teachers that are great for a majority of our students. But there are students out there, for whatever reason, they need a way to explore other options for their unique needs. If that option is a private school then they should be able to have the funding available to them just like our public school students do to be able to explore other options to meet their unique needs."

She said other states have put ESAs in place and have not experienced a mass exodus from public schools.

"And I do not believe that will happen in Iowa," she said.

School funding

Clinton School District Superintendent Gary DeLacy questioned the lawmakers about per-pupil inequity — which he said applies to every school district in Clinton County — that surfaced when the state funding formula was created in the early 1970s. Prior to that time schools were funded through property tax. When they went to the state formula, lawmakers grandfathered in property-rich districts to come in at a higher level than the agreed-upon rate, so they can spend more per student than property-poor districts such as Clinton.

"And that's been the same for basically the last 50 years," he said. "We've chipped away at it at about $7 a year. ... At the current rate, it will take 20 more years to get to the point where it doesn't matter where you live in the state, you would have the same number of dollars behind each student."

"I would encourage you to pick up the pace of $7 a year," he said, adding that it affects Camanche, DeWitt and Clinton. "We're all behind the 8-ball on that."

In Clinton, the impact is about $500,000 per year every year and is harder on local districts than transportation inequity, DeLacy said.

Cournoyer acknowledged the inequity and said lawmakers are addressing per-pupil, transportation and at-risk inequity.

Mommsen said the per-pupil rates were frozen in the early 1970s but the levels actually had been determined by the local school boards at that time.

Cournoyer also said the legislature soon will begin debating supplemental state aid, the increase in K-12 public school funding. She said the increase amount is now set at 2% in the Senate bill's language as a placeholder to get the process started but the governor has proposed SSA at around 2.5% to 2.6%, she said.

"Two percent is not the number we're going to land on," Cournoyer said.

Determann said the House side wants to see a 3% increase in SSA funding.

Mommsen was asked what other school issues are being worked on. He said issues under discussion include security inside and outside of the classroom; items of distraction, whether they pertain to curriculum or not; the operation of the Iowa State Board of Education; and how to address the teacher shortage.