DES MOINES — A $345 million a year federally funded financial aid package for private schools made its way to Gov. Kim Reynolds’ desk late Monday, where her signature would seal her top legislative priority into state law.
After more than five hours of debate, the bill passed Monday night at the Iowa House. The chamber was seen as the final potential stumbling block for the proposal; The Senate debated the bill, but it was widely expected that it would pass.
Reynolds will enact the law Tuesday, her office said, during national school election week.
The House of Representatives, which despite its Republican majority has not had enough votes to pass similar proposals in the past two years, passed the governor’s new, much broader proposal by a vote of 55 to 45. Only Republicans voted to support the bill, and nine Republicans joined Democrats in opposition.
Applause erupted from House Republicans after the vote.
“If a current public school isn’t working for a child, those parents must have a choice,” said Rep. John Wills, a Spirit Lake Republican and floor manager of the House bill, during the debate. “This bill will make that possible. We don’t want to force them to stay in a public school that doesn’t work for them, that doesn’t suit them, just because of the zip code they live in.”
The third bill is the stimulus
After the failure of the previous two proposals, Reynolds made what she calls school choice a top issue in her 2022 re-election campaign, which she won by a crucial 17 percentage points.
However, this year’s proposal is significantly larger than the previous two. While previous proposals were narrower and more limited, this proposal would eventually provide nearly $7,600 in state funding for each Iowa student who attends private school.
According to the state Department of Education, 33,692 Iowa students are enrolled in private schools in the 2022-2023 school year.
Reynolds’ proposal, House File 68, would establish taxpayer-funded first-year education savings accounts worth $7,598 — the amount the state spends per student on public K-12 education — that families pay for private school fees and other educational expenditure could use .
The program would be phased in over three years. In the third year, all K-12 students—including private students—would be eligible with no income restrictions.
The plan also provides new public county funding – estimated at just over $1,200 per student – for those who live in the county but attend private schools. And it removes some restrictions on other government funds so schools can spend that money on teachers’ salaries.
Long legislative debate
Proponents argue that the legislation would allow more Iowa students to attend private school and that taxpayer money should be used to support any Iowa family who wants to send their children to private school.
“School choice is not about schools. It’s not about teachers. It’s not about all those things. The focus of the school choice is on the children,” Wills said during the more than five-hour debate in the House of Representatives. “It’s about parents being able to sit in the driver’s seat for the benefit of their children. … This is about parents who need something different. You are desperate. Some parents are desperate for a change. We will offer that to them.”
Opponents counter that the state is responsible for funding public schools, that government programs already exist to support private schools, and that the creation of a new $345 million annual funding stream for private schools jeopardizes future funding for public schools. Critics of the bill also point out that taxpayers’ money shouldn’t go to private schools, which don’t have the same reporting requirements as public schools, and because private schools can choose which students to accept and which to reject.
“Public schools take all children; Private schools vote and vote,” said Rep. Jennifer Konfrst, leader of the Windsor Heights House Democrats. “This isn’t about school choice. This is about the election of the school administrator.”
Democrats scoffed at the program’s price tag, saying those funds could be better used to subsidize public college tuition, expand preschool access, or increase public school funding.
Several Democrats have made the claim that private schools are allowed to turn away or remove children from enrollment with special needs, learning disabilities, or behavior problems. Public schools are required by law to create individual educational 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 probably not be accepted into a private school.
“There is no choice for him because no private school will accept him because of his disability,” she said. “But Brandon is accepted and has teachers and staff working hard for him at Ankeny Community School District.”
tightening the debate
Democrats, who are in the minority in both chambers, argued that Republicans, with their agenda-setting majorities in both chambers, took actions that limited debate on the bill.
In the House of Representatives, Republicans created a new “Education Reform” committee to discuss the bill, and then wrote and approved a new chamber rule that said the bill, while including new government spending, does not have to go through the Budget Committee.
“We shouldn’t pass laws or rules that bypass the process or preclude contributions from the public or others,” Konfrst said. “To the 39 new members of this chamber, I am so sorry that your first vote is one that bypasses the process and allows for less oversight of incredibly expensive legislation.”
In the Senate, Republicans used a rule for the debate process that effectively prevented Democrats from introducing amendments.
“It’s a deliberate, blatant way of preventing anyone from perfecting the law and listening to our constituents, who have sent us hundreds of emails (about) what’s wrong with it,” said Senator Bill Dotzler, D-Waterloo . “Why don’t you want to listen to the public? Why wouldn’t you want to listen to someone 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 obvious in all these years.”
Earlier Monday, the bipartisan Legislative Services Agency released its much-anticipated budget analysis of Reynolds’ proposal just hours before the bill was debated. The agency estimates the proposal will cost $345 million annually when fully implemented.
The bipartisan agency’s estimates closely match those from Reynolds’ office, which predicted that the program would cost $341 million when fully implemented.