DES MOINES — Republican legislators advanced legislation Tuesday that would establish education savings grants — commonly known as vouchers — for K-12 students in Iowa.
Members of the House education subcommittee approved House Study Bill 651 in a 3-2 vote along party lines. The legislation, which also would loosen Iowa’s restrictions on charter schools, is likely will be taken up in full committee this week.
The savings grants, worth up to $5,000 per student, would allow parents to use state dollars to pay for private school tuition and related expenses. With a 1 percent funding increase, public schools will receive about $6,700 per student from the state next fiscal year.
“Everybody in this room cares about education. We all care deeply, deeply about education,” House Education Committee Chairman Walt Rogers, R-Cedar Falls, said to Tuesday’s crowded room of supporters and opponents.
“I brought this bill forward to make sure there are as many opportunities available to Iowa students as we could possibly provide. That’s what it’s about: providing more choice for parents and more opportunities for kids.”
The legislation’s approval came after nearly two dozen people spoke about the bill, the majority of whom urged subcommittee members to vote no and characterized the grant program as a threat to the state’s public schools.
“Vouchers simply take money away from the already strained public education budget and allocate it to private, religious schools and for-profit charter schools,” said Claire Celsi, an organizer of the group Iowans for Public Education. “ … Vouchers weaken public schools, which must maintain the same overhead costs with fewer resources.”
Rep. Amy Nielsen, D-North Liberty, questioned the validity of research cited in favor of the bill and noted most of the parents in attendance were in opposition.
“The majority in favor are from an organization that would benefit financially from it,” Nielsen said. “While the majority of the people opposed are parents who are concerned about their children’s education. I think that says an awful lot about this bill.”
The fiscal impact of the legislation has not yet been assessed by the Legislative Services Agency.
About 34,000 Iowa children are enrolled in private schools, according to the Iowa Department of Education, but the grants would not be available to many of them. If they were, the cost of the program could be as much as $170 million.
Instead, the education grants would be available only to students enrolled in public schools or students enrolling in schools for the first time.
But Rep. Mary Mascher, D-Iowa City, argued those parameters will not prevent a significant blow to school district budgets.
“Rep. Rogers has contended there is no impact to public schools. That is totally wrong,” Mascher said.
“We have 3,200 kindergartners in this state, 3,200 that go to private schools. Each and every one of those children would be eligible for a savings account, to the tune of $21 million.”
How many parents would choose to take advantage of education savings grants is unclear.
“The confidence in this room in our public schools is actually pretty low, if you want me to be honest with you,” said Rep. Skyler Wheeler, R-Orange City. “Why do we think there is going to be a mass exodus all of a sudden if there’s nothing wrong with our public schools? I think actually the argument against the bill is working against itself.”
Rogers, Wheeler and Rep. Megan Jones, R-Sioux Rapids — who did not comment on the bill — voted in favor.