Governor signs private tuition aid bill
DES MOINES — Gov. Kim Reynold signed into law Tuesday a bill that eventually will spend $345 million a year of public money on private schools.
Her signature came after the Legislature passed the bill in the early morning hours Tuesday following more than eight hours of debate – exactly two weeks after it was introduced and in the midst of national School Choice Week.
“What an amazing day for our children!” she exclaimed to a crowd of children, parents, lawmakers and other supporters gathered in the Iowa Capitol rotunda.
Hours earlier, after the bill cleared the final Senate hurdle at roughly 12:30 a.m., Reynolds celebrated with fellow Republicans just behind the Senate chamber.
“For the first time, we will fund students instead of a system, a decisive step in ensuring that every child in Iowa can receive the best education possible,” Reynolds said in a statement. “Parents, not the government, can now choose the education setting best suited to their child regardless of their income or ZIP code. With this bill, Iowa has affirmed that educational freedom belongs to all, not just those who can afford it.”
Third bill’s the charm
The House was considered the final potential stumbling block for the proposal. Despite its Republican majorities the House failed to pass similar proposals each of the past two years, but passed the governor’s new, much broader proposal by a 55-45 vote Monday evening.
Reynolds made what she calls school choice a top issue of her 2022 reelection campaign, which she won by 17 percentage points.
However, this year’s proposal is dramatically more expansive than the previous two. It eventually will make nearly $7,600 in state funding available to every Iowa K-12 student who attends a private school.
There are 33,692 Iowa students enrolled in private schools in the 2022-2023 school year, according to state education department.
Reynolds’ proposal, House File 68, creates taxpayer-funded educational savings accounts in the first year valued at $7,598 – the amount the state spends per pupil on public K-12 education – that families could use for private school tuition and other education expenses.
The program would be phased in over three years. In the third year, all K-12 students – including private-school students – would be eligible for the funding, with no income restrictions.
The plan also provides new funding to public districts – estimated at just more than $1,200 per student – for students who live in the district but attend private schools. And it removes some restraints on other state funding to allow schools to spend that money on teacher salaries.
Supporters argued the legislation makes attending a private school possible for more students, and taxpayer funding should be used to support any Iowa family who wishes to send their children to a private school.
“If a current public school isn’t working for a child, those parents need to have a choice,” Rep. John Wills, R-Spirit Lake and floor manager of the bill in the House, said during debate.
Only Republicans voted to support of the bill, and nine Republicans joined Democrats in opposition. Applause broke out among House Republicans after the vote.
Opponents noted the state is responsible for funding public schools, that state programs already exist to help private-school students and that spending $345 million annually on private schools will put future funding of public schools at risk. Critics also note private schools are not held to the same reporting requirements as public schools and can choose which students to accept and which to reject.
“Public schools accept all kids; private schools pick and choose,” Rep. Jennifer Konfrst, leader of the House Democrats from Windsor Heights, said. “This is not about school choice. This is about school administrator choice.”
Democrats derided the program’s price tag, saying those funds could better be used to subsidize public college tuition, expand pre-K access or boost public school funding.
Several Democrats raised the contention that private schools are allowed to turn away children with special needs, learning disabilities or behavioral issues. Public schools are required by law to create individualized education plans for students with special needs, but private schools are not.
Rep. Thomas Moore, R-Griswold and one of the nine House Republicans who voted against the bill, said he voted no because of strong opposition from his constituents. Even though his southwest Iowa district is strongly Republican, Moore said, his constituents were calling on him to vote against the bill.
“My vote came down to my constituents,” he said. “I represent them. I don’t represent myself, although I was opposed.”
Moore said he opposed the bill’s high price tag and the fact a portion of the taxpayer funding would go to families who could already afford private schools.
“To me, being a fiscal conservative, to give 33,000 people new money that they have already been spending on their own and don’t really need — to me that’s money that we could be using for other purposes here at the Capitol,” Moore said.
In the Senate
The bill later passed the Iowa Senate by a 31-18 vote, with only Republicans supporting the bill and three Republicans joining all Democrats in opposition.
Sen. Zach Wahls, Senate Democratic leader, said the proposal will endanger schools in rural communities. He said just a few students leaving a small school can cause significant financial distress.
Wahls called the proposal “rushed, reckless and radical.”
“Where’s the voice of rural education leaders in this discussion?” Wahls asked during debate. “This bill is Robin Hood in reverse.”
Sen. Amy Sinclair, R-Allerton who chairs the Senate Education Committee, insisted the legislation will not harm public schools, urban or rural. She also said the new $345 million annual program will not stress future state budgets.
“This is not an attack on teachers or public schools. This is not an attack on public education,” Sinclair said. during “This bill is about rights, parental rights and choice in education. … We empower the parents to make the educational choice that best suits their child.”
Legislators from both parties argued public opinion is on their side.
Polling from the Des Moines Register/Mediacom Iowa Poll, considered the gold standard in Iowa, showed that a majority of Iowans opposed Reynolds’ more limited proposal in 2022. There has been no public polling on this year’s bill.
Democrats, a minority in both chambers, argued Republicans took actions in both chambers to limit debate.
In the House, Republicans created a new “education reform” committee, then passed a new rule that said even though the bill contains new state spending, it is not required to go through the budget committee.
In the Senate, Republicans used a debate process rule that effectively barred Democrats from introducing amendments.
“It is a willful, blatant way of cutting everybody out from perfecting the bill and listening to our constituents who sent us hundreds of emails (about) what’s wrong with it,” Sen. Bill Dotzler, D-Waterloo, said. “Why wouldn’t you want to listen to the public? Why wouldn’t you want to listen to somebody who might have a good idea? …
“I’ve been here longer than any other senator in this room,” Dotzler added. “And I’ve never seen anything so blatant in all my years.”
Earlier Monday, the nonpartisan Legislative Services Agency issued its highly-anticipated fiscal analysis Reynolds’ proposal just hours ahead of floor debate on the bill. The agency projects the proposal will cost $345 million annually once fully implemented.
The nonpartisan agency’s estimates closely align with those made earlier by Reynolds’ office, which predicted the program would cost $341 million when fully implemented.