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State-funded private school financial aid bill awaits Iowa Gov. Reynolds' signature

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People stand outside the meeting room for a public hearing on Gov. Kim Reynolds' proposal to provide state-funded assistance for students to attend private school. Hundreds of people were at the Capitol for the hearing, exceeding the capacity inside the meeting room.

DES MOINES — A state-funded private school financial assistance package costing $345 million a year is headed to Gov. Kim Reynolds’ desk, where her signature would seal her top legislative priority into state law.

After more than eight hours of debate, the bill passed both chambers of the Iowa Legislature early Tuesday.

Reynolds will sign the legislation into law later Tuesday, her office said, during national School Choice Week. The bill-signing will come exactly two weeks after the bill was introduced.

After the bill passed the final Senate hurdle at roughly 12:30 a.m., Reynolds celebrated with her 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 Iowa House was considered the final potential stumbling block for the proposal. The House, which despite its Republican majorities did not have enough votes to pass similar proposals each of the past two years, passed the governor’s new, much broader proposal with a 55-45 vote Monday evening.

After the failures of the previous two proposals, Reynolds made what she calls school choice a top issue of her 2022 re-election campaign, which she won by a decisive 17 percentage points.

However, this year’s proposal is dramatically more expansive than the previous two. While the previous proposals were narrower and more limited in scope, this proposal eventually would 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 valued at $7,598, which is 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 those 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.

Long legislative debate

Supporters argued the legislation makes attending a private school possible for more Iowa students, and that 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, a Republican from Spirit Lake and floor manager of the bill in the House, said during debate. “That’s what this bill is going to allow. We don’t want to force them to stay in a public school that doesn’t work for them, that doesn’t fit them, just because of the ZIP code they live in.”

Only Republicans voted to support of the bill, and nine Republicans joined Democrats in opposition. Applause broke out among House Republicans after the vote.

“The focus of school choice isn’t about schools. It isn’t about teachers. It isn’t about any of those things. The focus of school choice is about kids,” Wills added during the more than five hours of debate in the House. “It’s about parents having the ability to be in the driver seat for their kid’s sake. … This is about parents needing something different. They’re desperate. Some parents are desperate for a change. We’re going to offer that for them.”

Opponents counter that the state is responsible for funding public schools, that state programs already exist to help private school students and that creating a new, $345 million annual funding stream for private schools will put future funding of public schools at risk. Critics of the bill also note that taxpayer funding should not go to private schools that are not held to the same reporting requirements as public schools, and because private schools can choose which students to accept and which to reject.

“Public schools accept all kids; private schools pick and choose,” said Rep. Jennifer Konfrst, leader of the House Democrats from Windsor Heights. “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 or drop from enrollment 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 do not have the same requirements.

Rep. Heather Matson, a Democrat from Ankeny, said a student in her district with autism, named Brandon, would likely not be accepted at a private school.

“There is no choice for him because no private school will accept him because of his disabilities,” she said. “But Brandon is accepted and has teachers and staff who work hard for him in the Ankeny Community School District.”

Rep. Skyler Wheeler, a Republican from Hull who chairs the House education committee, said the plan allows parents who do not have the financial means to choose a school that’s best for their children.

“This is about students; it’s not about systems,” he said. “Tonight, in a historic fashion, the state of Iowa is going to uphold and uplift every family in the state.”

Wheeler called warnings that the plan would lead to consolidation and closure of rural schools “doom and gloom,” saying the same concerns had been floated with past laws that he said ultimately had little impact on rural schools.

Rep. Thomas Moore, a Republican from 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 will go to families who can 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.

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, leader of the Iowa Senate Democrats, said during debate that the proposal will hurt rural communities by endangering their schools. He said it would only take a small number of students leaving a small school to 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, a Republican from Allerton who chairs the Senate’s education committee, pushed back against Democrats’ arguments and insisted the legislation will not harm public schools, whether 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 Senate debate. “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 that public opinion is on their side of the state-funded private school assistance debate.

Polling from the Des Moines Register/Mediacom Iowa Poll, considered the gold standard in Iowa polling, showed that a majority of Iowans opposed Reynolds’ more limited proposal in 2022. There has been no public polling on this year’s bill.

Streamlining debate

Democrats, who are in the minority in both chambers, argued that Republicans, with their agenda-setting majorities, took actions in both chambers that limited debate on the bill.

In the House, Republicans created a new “education reform” committee in which to debate the bill, then wrote and approved a new chamber rule that said even though the bill contains new state spending, it is not required to go through the budget committee.

“We shouldn’t be passing legislation or rules that circumvent the process or eliminate input from the public or each other,” Konfrst said. “To the 39 new members of this chamber, I am so sorry that your first vote is one that circumvents the process and that allows less oversight on incredibly expensive legislation.”

In the Senate, Republicans used a debate process rule that effectively made it so Democrats could not introduce 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,” said Sen. Bill Dotzler, a Democrat from Waterloo. “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.”

Fiscal analysis

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.

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