School choice a hot topic at Eggs and Issues legislative forum
Gov. Kim Reynolds’ school voucher bill was the topic of much discussion at a forum with local legislative officials on Saturday morning.
State Senators Tim Kraayenbrink, R-Fort Dodge, and Jesse Green, R-Boone, as well as State Rep. Ann Meyer, R-Fort Dodge, answered constituents’ questions about the bill and other legislative matters at the Eggs and Issues forum hosted by the Greater Fort Dodge Growth Alliance and Iowa Central Community College. About 40 people attended the forum.
The legislators told the audience that the legislature is in a “holding pattern,” with moving the state budget through the House and the Senate, as well as movement on Reynolds’ Students First Act, which would allocate taxpayer funds for 10,000 Iowa students to participate in a pilot program of an “educational savings account” system to transfer to private and parochial schools.
Judge Brown, a retired educator from Fort Dodge and former school and multicultural integration consultant for the Iowa Department of Education, started the forum by asking for more answers about the school choice bill.
“Why is the governor hellbent on giving more money to private schools?” he asked.
Meyer explained that the bill will give 10,000 scholarships, half of which will go to students with special needs and individual education plans and half going to low-income students.
“Why do we think it’s so important?” she said. “Because there are kids that are not doing well in the public school setting.”
She said this will be a “true pilot program,” and there are plans to test the students involved in three to five years to see if they actually have benefited from the program.
Meyer also said that specifics in the bill are still being negotiated — for example, as written, the maximum income level for participating families is 400% of the federal poverty level ($106,000 for a family of four). She said the House would like to see that change to 250% of the federal poverty level.
Green said he is “fully” behind the program and believes it will be expanded in the future.
“At the end of the day, there are so many environments that are providing rock-solid education … We want plenty of opportunities for children to be able to go into and get a good quality education and in some cases, that’s not a public school environment, and we want to make sure that every child does have that ability to find that environment that meets their needs.”
He also noted that he believes the legislature has made education its No. 1 priority, increasing funding. He said that per child, about $19,000 in public dollars are spent, both federal and state funding.
“We are committed to public education,” Green said.
At one point during the forum, Kraayenbrink told those in attendance that this bill is going to be easy to pass because of things happening in Iowa schools like the Linn-Mar Community School District in eastern Iowa recently adopting a policy allowing transgender students to use the restroom that aligns with their gender identity. He also claimed that there are schools in his Senate district that have set up cat litter boxes in the bathrooms for students who identify as “furries” or cats to use.
“Not in the Fort Dodge district, but in my Senate district, they’re requiring these schools to put kitty litter boxes in the bathroom,” he said. “The thing is, these things are happening in Iowa on a regular basis and nobody knows about it, because the media doesn’t cover these things … It’s making it very easy to give parents and children more options if they feel that their child has not been educated correctly, or the way they want that child.”
Multiple news outlets and independent fact-checkers across the country, including the Poynter Institute’s PolitiFact, have debunked the kitty litter scenario as a hoax several times since its first appearance earlier this year. This is a hoax that spread in late December and early January after a parent in central Michigan made an unsubstantiated claim during a school board meeting that this was happening at schools in the district. Since the video of that school board meeting went viral, the hoax has spread across the map. In March, a Nebraska state senator issued an apology after he cited the hoax as fact during a televised debate.
When asked by The Messenger if Kraayenbrink could identify the specific schools where this is happening, he said, “I will check with the school and I will get back to you on that.”
On Sunday, in a text message, he told The Messenger, “To follow up with you concerning your question, I had a conversation with a parent in the school district I was alluding to several months ago, which I took as confidential. I have not verified that conversation with school officials. With that being said, I wouldn’t feel comfortable identifying the district.”
Kraayenbrink represents Iowa Senate District 5, which includes all of Humboldt, Pocahontas and Calhoun counties, as well as the northwest two-thirds of Webster County.
Meyer discussed the funding for the program — which is projected to cost over $50 million. Only the state portion of the “per pupil” funding the public school districts receive will follow the students transferring to private schools. That number is $5,300, with the rest staying with the district.
“So actually, the public school system will still be getting funding for a child that they’re not educating, so the notion that they’re going to lose money if these children are educated elsewhere is false,” she said.
Joe Jackson, of Fort Dodge, addressed the legislators about concerns he has over the school choice bill using public dollars to fund religious private schools.
“Whatever happened to the separation of church and state?” he asked. “How can you justify tax dollars going to make students pray?”
Green defended the bill, saying that it doesn’t establish a religion in schools, but encourages families to choose what they want their students to learn.
“It’s not our job to determine which system is better,” Green said. “I think parents know what system is best for their children and we want to give them that flexibility.”
Kraayenbrink said he’s talked to superintendents in his Senate district about this bill.
“This isn’t going to affect Fort Dodge, basically it’s going to affect a lot of the people in the metro area,” he said.
Webster County resident Al Hayek asked the legislators about their views on the bill that puts a moratorium on the Iowa Utilities Board from making any rulings on eminent domain use for the carbon pipeline projects proposed in the state.
Hayek, who owns land in rural parts of the county, is a vocal opponent to the pipelines and the use of eminent domain to force landowners to let the pipeline companies use their land.
“I am against a private company using eminent domain to get private gains,” he said. “I would think the majority of people are.”
He said he plans to propose a bill next year that would make any easement rights landowners are paid for — through voluntary easement or eminent domain — completely tax-free.
Green also said he believes eminent domain should not be used for private, for-profit companies.
State Sen. Mike Sexton, R-Rockwell City, was not at the forum as he is a farmer and was working in the field on Saturday.