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DES MOINES – House Republican legislation to establish education savings grants, often called vouchers, for K-12 students in Iowa has been quashed – at least for this year.

House Education Committee Chairman Walt Roger, R-Cedar Falls, who has been pushing educational savings accounts (ESAs) for the past few years, pulled the bill from his Thursday agenda, citing lack of support from committee members, including Republicans.

Although the bill’s failure to win committee approval before Friday’s funnel deadline likely ends any action on ESAs this year, a similar bill is alive in the Senate Appropriations Committee. Appropriations bill are not subject to the self-imposed funnel deadline for non-money legislation to receive the backing of a standing committee in the House or Senate to be eligible for further debate.

“It’s a big paradigm shift,” Rogers said about the concept of would allow parents to use state dollars to pay for private school tuition and related expenses. “I’ve got some members who are still not fully there where I’m at.”

Calling it a “little defeat,” Rogers said he will continue to work on ESA legislation. “I still believe in it very much.”

Earlier this week and Education subcommittee approved House Study Bill 651 on a 3-2 party lines. 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.

Education Committee members’ concerns were both financial and philosophical, Rogers said. The financial impact was of lesser concern than some of the other arguments opponents made.

The Legislature plans to increase funding to K-12 education by 1 percent, $32 million, for the 2018-19 school year. That’s about $6,700 per student from the state next fiscal year.

“Some still believe some of the misleading things that are out there like it’s going to gut public education and destroy rural schools,” he said. “I don’t think there is any data to actually back that up.”

About 34,000 Iowa children are enrolled in non-public 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. According to a fiscal analysis by the nonpartisan Legislative Services Agency, the actual ESA grant would be about $4,500 and the initial cost for kindergartners entering school this summer would be about $17 million.

Rogers was philosophical about the setback.

“I’ve pushed a lot of issues around here. That’s the way it goes,” he said. “It takes a while to get some things through. You know me, I don’t like traffic cameras and we’ve been battling that for eight years.”

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Statehouse reporter for The Courier

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