DES MOINES — Gov. Kim Reynolds used her sixth Condition of the State address and larger Republican majorities in the Legislature to double down on — and expand — her push for school choice legislation.
Reynolds, in her annual address to a joint session of the Iowa House and Senate, on Tuesday night outlined a new plan to devote more public tax dollars to subsidize private school tuition, stating Iowa parents need more choices for their children’s education.
“Our first priority in this legislative session — and what I will be focusing on over the next four years — is making sure that every child is provided with a quality education that fits their needs,” Reynolds said.
Reynolds’ new proposal would devote the entire state per-pupil funding dedicated to each K-12 Iowa student — $7,598 in the form of an education savings account — to students who choose to attend private school.
The program would be phased in over three years, prioritizing kindergarten and low-income students in the first year two years. In the third year, all private school students would be eligible for the savings accounts.
Public schools would receive $1,200 for any student who opts to leave for a private school, and for any student who lives in the district and attends a private school.
The governor’s office estimated roughly 14,000 students would be eligible for the program in the first year, which would cost the state $106.9 million.
Reynolds’ previously proposed allocating a portion of the per-pupil funding — $5,360 — for 10,000 scholarships available for covering costs for attending a private or charter school. The program was proposed originally to be for low-income students only.
It’s a significant expansion from what Reynolds proposed last year, which failed to gain support in the Iowa House.
House Republicans have pushed back on the voucher program the past two years. Rural school districts fear the proposal would sap state aid to public schools and limit course offerings, lead to larger class sizes and force more school consolidations.
While previous so-called school choice proposals died in the House, Republican Speaker Pat Grassley has been more optimistic about something passing this year. He formed a new committee to address education policy and said that legislation will be House Republicans’ top priority this session.
The proposal was a major plank of Reynolds’ 2022 re-election campaign.
The governor said her focus continues to be on raising the quality of education in every school and for every child, and that parental choice in education is not a zero-sum game.
“This isn’t about money,” Reynolds said, noting Iowa has increased school funding by $1 billion in the past decade, and that other states spend less with better or similar results.
“It’s also not about public versus private schools,” the governor said. “If we’re really going to make sure that every child has a quality education, then we have to set aside this us-versus-them mentality.
“ … We have incredible public schools filled with amazing, dedicated teachers,” Reynolds said, noting her daughter is among them. “But every child is an individual who deserves an education tailored to their unique needs, and parents are in the best position to identify the right environment.”
Reynolds also proposed allowing for more flexibility in how public schools can use state-provided dollars, including to increase teacher salaries.
“Right now, there is almost $100 million earmarked for specific programs that remains unspent in school districts across Iowa,” she said. “… Let’s focus on making sure we reward those teachers who work so hard to make a difference in our children’s lives.”
Reynolds did not outline plans for further efforts to restrict abortion but called on lawmakers to add to the $500,000 the Legislature allocated last year toward funding nonprofit organizations that encourage alternatives to abortion. These organizations provide services such as pregnancy and adoption counseling.
Reynolds called for funding to provide nonprofit grants to assist at-risk fathers and promote paternal involvement, as well as mentorship for school-age males.
Mazie Stilwell, director of public affairs for Planned Parenthood Advocates of Iowa, said the women’s clinics have a long and documented history of misleading women and misrepresenting themselves as legitimate medical providers.
Republican leaders of both the House and Senate have said they plan to work on expanding the program this legislative session.
The governor also called on lawmakers to fund two specialty hospitals that use local primary care providers to connect rural patients with obstetric and gynecological care. Lawmakers in 2021 funded two such “Centers of Excellence” in Carroll and Grinnell. Reynolds as well proposed funding four obstetrics fellowships for primary care doctors to help address the critical demand for services in rural Iowa.
She also announced increased funding for a health care apprenticeship program created last year, taking it from $3 to $15 million.
The governor also proposed increasing penalties for manufacturing and distributing fentanyl, including double to triple the current sentence for fentanyl sales that lead to a deadly overdose or where a minor is present.
“That means longer sentences and higher fines, even where the quantity is small,” Reynolds said.
Recently elected Iowa Republican Attorney Brenna Bird has proposed legislation that would make the sale of a controlled substance, not counting marijuana, resulting in death or serious injury to be punishable by a Class-B felony. Currently, there are no heightened penalties in state law if a death occurs.
While Iowa maintains one of the lowest overdose death rates in the country, Reynolds said Iowa still is experiencing unacceptable trends.
Opioid-related deaths in Iowa reached a record high 258 in 2021, up 64% compared with 2019, with the largest increase occurring among young Iowans under 25, according to the Governor’s Office of Drug Control Policy. Illicit fentanyl was implicated in 83% of the most recent deaths.
Reynolds also proposes merging 37 executive cabinet agencies to 16.
She said Arkansas, Mississippi and Oklahoma all have populations and budgets similar to Iowa, but just 15 cabinet members each.
“The result is unnecessary friction for Iowans, with services spread unpredictably across state government. Eleven agencies currently operate some kind of workforce program; more than 100 professional licensing functions are spread across eleven agencies. And these are just two of the most glaring examples,” she said.
Democrats criticized Reynolds for pushing what they see as an “extreme” agenda they argue is unpopular and out of touch with what a majority of Iowans want, based on public polling.
“Every poll that we’ve seen” suggests Iowans “want fully funded public schools,” Matt Sinovic, executive director of Progress Iowa, said during “The People’s Condition of the State” event at the Capitol ahead of Reynolds’ address.
“The people believe in our public schools, hard work, and that the wealthy should pay what they owe so we can invest in each other,” Sinovic said. “Unfortunately the people’s voice is not being represented by Gov. Reynolds.”
Iowa House and Senate Democrats and the Iowa State Education Association, a teachers union in Iowa, say Reynolds’ “school choice” proposal will pull critical resources from public schools and limit course offerings, lead to larger class sizes and force more school consolidations.
Connie Ryan, executive director of Interfaith Alliance of Iowa Action Fund, noted private schools lack the same requirements and obligations as public schools, which are required to accept all students, regardless of their background and educational needs.
“Overwhelmingly, Iowans do not want their hard-earned tax dollars to be funneled to private schools that are in charge of who gets in and who does not — not the parents — with little oversight or transparency,” Ryan said. “Iowans want our public schools that are open for all Iowa’s children serving without bias to be adequately funded.”
House Minority Leader Jennifer Konfrst, D-Windsor Heights, noted a vast majority of Iowa public schools are in rural areas with little to no access to private education.
“So school choice — parental choice — is a misnomer,” Konfrst said at the Progress Iowa event. “We are taking away choices from Iowa families who want to send their kids to good, strong, quality public schools.”
“At the end of the day, remember this: School vouchers are bad for Iowa kids,” Konfrst said. “They’re bad for Iowa communities, and they’re not what Iowa families want.”
Reynolds has been Iowa’s chief executive since 2017 and is the state’s first female governor.