DES MOINES — Legislative Republicans pushed a state-funded private school scholarship program closer to floor debate Tuesday during a week Gov. Kim Reynolds’ proclaimed to celebrate school choice.
One day after the Senate Education Committee narrowly approved the governor’s plan to provide up to $5,200 state scholarships for private or home schooling costs — the Senate Ways and Means Committee voted 9-6 to approve two tax-related elements of the bill and return it to the debate calendar.
The Appropriations Committee is slated to take up the measure Wednesday, the last hurdle before bringing it to the full Senate as early as Thursday.
The House made some unusual procedural moves Tuesday to keep the proposal moving forward. Democrats expressed concern Iowans are not getting a chance to analyze a proposal setting up private school vouchers with taxpayer money.
“This is, quite frankly, a very radical departure for public education,” said Sen. Pam Jochum, D-Dubuque, during Tuesday’s Senate committee meeting.
“The public should have time to weigh in on these important changes in policy affecting public education in our state,” Jochum said in an interview. “Obviously, the faster they move it, the less chance there is for push back from the public that’s not happy with this kind of a change because it will take about $54 million and shift it from public education to private.”
She questioned making such a move when schools are facing additional expenses in dealing with COVID-19.
Reynolds has said the bill has the potential to “raise the quality for all schools, public and private.”
The governor’s staff estimates the bill initially would cost up to $3 million, even though about 10,000 students attending 34 public schools that are receiving support under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act would qualify for the scholarship fund.
Democrats are pushing for a fiscal note from the nonpartisan Legislative Services Agency to fully understand the budget implications.
“The numbers don’t add up,” said Jochum.
Reynolds’ bill proposes three elements of school choice by establishing state funding for students in struggling public schools who wish to attend a private school; creating a charter school program; and allowing students to transfer out of schools with voluntary or court-ordered diversity plans.
Sen. Amy Sinclair, R-Allerton, chair of the Senate Education Committee, said the legislative pace of the bill has been appropriate to give Iowans enough time to provide their input since Reynolds talked of school choice plans in her Jan. 12 Condition of the State address.
Under the provisions approved Tuesday by the Senate tax-writing committee, families that deduct 25 percent of up to $1,000 spent per child for textbooks and tuition on their state income tax returns would be allowed to deduct 50 percent of the first $2,000 spent per child. Also, the bill doubles the deduction teachers can take on their state income taxes for some out-of-pocket expenses — from $250 now to $500.
Also Tuesday, members of the House Education Committee voted 15-7 to approve legislation that would require all Iowa schools to provide a 100% in-person instruction option.
“As Iowa reopened its schools in the fall, the learning experiences have not been equitable for our children. National studies show that keeping kids out of the classrooms has resulted in considerable learning loss,” said Rep. Phil Thompson, R-Jefferson.
Majority Republicans rejected amendments aimed at extending the time for school districts to comply so they can address bus schedules, staffing needs and other changes.
If passed, the measure would take effect no later than the second Monday after enactment. Parents and students would be given at least five days to decide what kind of instruction they wish to receive.
Democrats tried unsuccessfully to provide that state public health officials devise a COVID-19 vaccination plan for schools to protect teachers, students, staff, bus drivers and others.
The measure would still allow a waiver process if a district were hit with a viral outbreak.
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