Northwood-Kensett, Lake Mills superintendent express concern about school choice legislation

Published 4:44 pm Monday, January 30, 2023

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Northwood-Kensett and Lake Mills school district leaders expressed concern about Iowa’s new legislation that allows any student attending a private school to receive public money for tuition or other expenses. A recurring theme: the new legislation could hurt public school districts already tight for cash.

Last week, Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds signed off on the plan. If students opt for private school, $7,600 in per-pupil support would follow them to a private institution, while $1,200 would go to the public school district where the student resided. Reynolds made private school funding one of her top priorities after failing to pass similar but less expensive proposals twice previously. The program is estimated to cost Iowa $350 million, and could lead to less state-supplemented aid in the future.

Money would come from the state, and Chris Rogne, superintendent of Lake Mills Community School, noted the effects of the move are unknown, but said ultimately the move could lead to fewer students in a time of already slightly declining enrollment.

Chris Rogne

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“It becomes tough to offer the same type or level of programming and class sizes, etc. when we have fewer students and therefore fewer funding coming in,” he said.

He’s appreciative of the $1,200, but said it wasn’t the same as $7,600.

He said at first he wasn’t surprised by the move, and he wanted to believe it wouldn’t pass. Now that it passed, however, he said the only thing left is to control what he can, which includes giving students within the district the best educational opportunities available.

To do that, he emphasized the necessity of having great staff and the ability to offer them what it took to retain them.

Because enrollment is tied directly to funding, and because rural schools aren’t necessarily growing, that presents a challenge, especially for a superintendent who wants to make Lake Mills Schools a desirable place for families to stay.

Rogne didn’t know exactly how many students residing in the district attended private school or were homeschooled, but said “there were a number” and estimated around a dozen students in total were homeschooled.

He also supported school choice, and believed students should go wherever was the best fit.

What he disagreed with was the Legislature’s decision to send public money to the private sector.

He noted that while his money went to the district, private schools or homeschooled families don’t necessarily follow the same guidelines, rules, laws and regulations that public schools do.

“They can send buses all over and cross district lines everywhere to come pick kids up and things like that that we’re not able to do,” he said. “It’s not even a level playing field that way with essentially taxpayer money. It’s not equitable.”

He also hadn’t heard from parents, though he did talk to Lake Mills Community School Board President Ryan Joynt while the proposal was under discussion. Rogne said Joynt was in support of public schools.

“The impacts are unknown and change happens,” he said. “It’s not the first time that there’s been a shakeup that the systems are funding,” Rogne said. “The focus here, like it will always be, will be providing the students of Lake Mills the best opportunities we can to prepare them for their future goals.”

According to Rogne, the district is currently experiencing a slight decline in enrollment, having lost roughly 35 students over the past five years. And with roughly $7,600 per student, that’s $262,5000 lost per year, which adds up.

“At some point we have to offer less programming, less staff,” he said.

There are roughly 680 students in Lake Mills Community School District.

Michael Crozier, superintendent of Northwood-Kensett Community Schools, said the district could lose students and believed the legislation would not benefit public schools, only those who send their children to private schools.

Michael Crozier

“Even if we do not lose students, funding in the future will be affected as there will be less funds to go to education,” he said in an email. “Private school vouchers pull valuable resources from our rural community schools, leading to increased consolidations and property tax hikes.”

In his email, Crozier also noted information the district received from the Iowa School Board Association that “it has not been positive for public schools in urban or rural areas.”

He also didn’t know where the money would come from as tax cuts will already be imposed in the future.

His perception of the legislation was also different from Rogne’s, and argued there was a misconception about giving families a choice.

“Private schools get to pick and choose the students they accept,” he said. “If a student that has behavior problems or is on an Individual Education Plan that the private school cannot accommodate, they do not have to accept them. That is not school choice.”

Northwood-Kensett Community School District has 508 students.

— The Associated Press contributed to this report.