I want at least my share of state taxes and property taxes that are appropriated to education to pay for MY child’s schooling. Currently I only get the promised “free education” if I let the government dictate which school my child attends based on my zip code.

On September 8, Kathie Obradovich reported in the Des Moines Register that Republican gubernatorial candidate Bob Vander Plaats does not support vouchers that would allow parents the choice of school that best meets the needs of their child but, instead, “would like to see a tax credit be aggressively ramped up for those parents who do choose to education their own child through either private school or home school.” His comments accept the premise that public schools are and should be the primary choice. This is a false premise. He is opposed to vouchers, which would pay for all or a large percentage of a student’s tuition at a private school because public money comes with “too many strings attached.”

This is disappointing. He’s either ignorant or a historical revisionist regarding this subject. I expected more from Vander Plaats. The champion of the “Let Us Vote” campaign, defender of state’s rights, and friend of homeschooling still thinks I should pay twice for my child’s education if I don’t go to my assigned government school. It isn’t a principled stance. I can vote for a candidate that isn’t comfortable with vouchers but it’s hard to support or champion a candidate that has held himself to such a high standard on family values but doesn’t want to support the family’s fundamental role in educating their child.

Where are the candidates who truly respect the role of the parent and who aren’t afraid to advocate for a level playing field in the education arena?  Senators Jerry Behn and Paul McKinley are School Choice champions.  But are they going to stick this campaign out? Can they garner enough support if Branstad runs? Can Vander Plaats?

Let’s take a step back and look at the entire parental rights/school choice picture:

The public school experiment, like most nationalized/socialized programs, is failing. We spend more taxpayer dollars every year for decreasing results in spite of lowering proficiency standards to embarrassingly low levels (40th percentile rank, the lowest in the Midwest and possibly the nation). Public schools are increasingly hostile toward parental rights and Judeo-Christian values. Teacher’s Unions have a disproportionate sway on policy decisions. Everyone has a union except families and students. Is it remotely practical to suggest public schools be eliminated? No. What can we do, then, to mitigate the decline and encourage improvement? Level the playing field for all education options. Let’s create a “private option” for education by making it attainable for all Iowans.

How do you level the playing field? Vander Plaats seems to prefer the extort-and-partially-refund route. I still pay the same taxes as a public school family but if I choose a school that better meets the academic needs of my child; I get a tax credit under Vander Plaat’s plan that may cover a fraction of the cost of tuition depending on how much money I make or how I itemize. I’m still paying twice. This is immoral. What happens if I don’t make enough to utilize the tax credit? I’m stuck in a public school or I’m stuck at a disadvantage compared to my wealthier neighbors based on the current system’s “escape-if-your-rich” model. The quality of my child’s education shouldn’t be solely dependent on my income or address when every taxpayer has a vested interest in my child’s success.

Currently, Iowa has a generous tax credit program for those who donate to School Tuition Organizations. These STO’s, as they are called, can then scholarship low and middle-income families who couldn’t afford private schooling on their own. This is a great program and there is nothing wrong with incentivizing citizens helping other citizens make informed and healthy choices for their kids through private donations. I’m proud to have been involved in this program since the week after it passed the Legislature in 2006. These scholarships are capped (currently $7.5 million), however, limiting the number of families who can participate. There are also families with multiple children who may not be able to draw down enough scholarship dollars to make private school possible for their children based on high demand within that STO. The STO program is a great step in the right direction but vouchers would be a great way to fill in the gap for all Iowans.

If Vander Plaats and others still don’t have the stomach for stepping out on vouchers, we should tell parents that if they want to get engaged in their children’s education and choose the school that best meets their child’s needs, they will AT LEAST get their share of property taxes that would have gone to the local district sent directly to their child’s school. Along with this refund, a tax credit to recuperate the total percentage of sales and/or income tax they have paid appropriated to education that year should be considered. This would mean that NO ONE else’s tax dollars would be paying for their child’s private school education. They would simply be able to keep their own money to use at the school of their choice.

Lower income families that do not own property would still be able to participate in the Educational Opportunities Act and take advantage of STO scholarships. With middle-income families needing fewer STO dollars based on tax rebates and credits, STOs would have some money freed up to better meet the needs of lower-income families. This combination of tax refunds (pre-paid vouchers) with tax credits could be administrated on two simple forms by the STOs and Schools.

Public schools, a political sacred cow in Iowa, are never going to see an overall decrease in education spending for the foreseeable future so these ideas ensure greater per-pupil expenditures which should help them compete not only with their private school counterparts in their area but globally as well. They keep saying all they need are more financial resources. We could also look at the Milwaukee model which holds the public school harmless for a year after the student leaves the district on the per-pupil funding model. Everyone wins!

If this type of pre-paid voucher/tax credit hybrid program proves successful, then maybe we can talk about more extensive incentives for parents to choose private instruction of any type in the near future by making every kid worth the same dollar amount and giving parents the choice of public, private, virtual, private/home instruction, etc. that best meets their child’s needs.

The primary drawback for vouchers, according to Vander Plaats, is that vouchers come “with strings attached.” Really? When? Where? Milwaukee, D.C., and other voucher programs that have been working for years have not seen these “strings.”  Many developed nations reimburse private schools with few if any criteria.  Participation in these programs is never mandatory for these schools. I don’t need Mr. Vander Plaats telling my school what’s best for it. If we want, as a collective of private school parents, to use our own tax dollars to pay for our own child’s education, he is no different than any Socialist leftist when he says, “no, giving you back your own money wouldn’t be good for you or your school in spite of previous positive results.” I don’t need a conservative nanny-state alternative. I need choices and resources.

There are plenty of Republican candidates for Governor this year that have extensive public policy experience. Vander Plaats’ discernible distinctive to the average voter so far is his stance on the marriage issue. Try education. People care about it. Possibly even more than the marriage issue, sadly. If he can’t muster up within himself the ability to champion a full scholarship program for the full amount the state would have spent on a public school student, then this combination of pre-paid tax rebates and tax credits described above may be more sufferable politically. Combine this with allowing private schools to participate if they are accredited by any regional or national accrediting body, and you’d encourage innovation and participation that can only be good for our state’s children.

As a taxpayer and a parent who is committed to obtaining the best education possible for his children, I’ll take what I can get. But with half-baked support from conservative “friends” like this…who needs enemies?

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