Reynolds signs school choice bill

Gov. Kim Reynolds has signed her school-choice bill into law. The bill, introduced just two weeks ago in her State of the State address, would create tax-funded education savings accounts that would be available to K-12 students nationwide with no income caps.

The money deposited in the accounts could be spent on educational expenses such as tuition and fees at private and religious schools. The law would give Iowa one of the broadest ESA laws in the country, just as similar proposals are being put forward in states like Utah and Florida.

In less than 24 hours, the bill was debated in both chambers, passed and put into effect. At a signing ceremony Tuesday morning in the Capitol rotunda, Reynolds said her plan sets a different standard for education in Iowa.

“We reject the idea that the answer to improving education is simply to pump more money into the same system year after year without making significant changes,” Reynolds said, surrounded by supporters, school choice advocates and private students. “And we’re getting rid of the notion that competition is a zero-sum game.”

Opponents of the law have criticized Reynolds’ plan to reallocate hundreds of millions of dollars in education funds to religious schools and select private schemes. Reynolds’ priority is to provide government funding to care for students, regardless of their income level or the schools they attend.

“It’s not about the money. It’s not even about public schools versus private schools,” Reynolds said. “It’s really about giving each student the best opportunity to find their place in the world and laying a foundation for success in the future.”

The signing of the bill establishes a crash course for the Iowa Department of Education, the agency charged with setting up and running the program.

Families wishing to receive an ESA for next fall must apply for a government-funded account by the end of June. The department will set up a link Tuesday, Reynolds said, for families to sign up for updates on applying for a state-funded account. A call for tenders will also be published to find a private contractor to manage the programme.

ESA plan approved after marathon debate

Iowa’s new School Elections Act (HF 68) passed the House of Representatives after more than eight hours of debate by a 55-45 vote, with nine Republicans joining all House Democrats who voted against.

The Senate followed after midnight, putting the bill before the governor’s desk by a vote of 31 to 18. Three Republican senators voted with Democrats against the law.

Rep. John Wills, R-Spirit Lake, doesn’t expect a large migration of students from public to private schools, but said the state should support parents who want to make the switch.

“This bill is about giving parents responsibility for the education of their students,” Wills said. “The purpose of this bill is to ensure that parents have the ability to determine where their children go to school, not their zip code.”

Rep. John Wills, R-Spirit Lake, watches lawmakers debate HF 68 ahead of its passage.

Rep. John Wills, R-Spirit Lake, watches lawmakers debate HF 68 ahead of its passage.

Wills said the bill is for families who want a faith-based education for their children or an academic program not offered at their local schools.

He added that the legislation is also Republicans’ response to conservative parents who, in recent years, have claimed that public schools are advancing a liberal agenda by teaching race and history or by stocking the library with books some parents find obscene .

Gov. Kim Reynolds held a private meeting with parents of Linn-Mar schools last spring who were upset about a policy that allows students in seventh grade and up to keep their gender support plans private.

Wills said the policy justifies a huge increase in government funding for private schools in Iowa.

“Why should parents choose an education savings account? Well, maybe they don’t trust public schools anymore,” Wills said. “This is a school that refuses to tell parents about their children. Maybe that’s why parents choose to go somewhere other than public school.”

Under the School Choices Act, starting next fall, families could apply for $7,598 in Education Savings Accounts, or ESAs, which could be used to pay for educational expenses such as private school fees.

A tax analysis prepared by the non-partisan Legislative Services Agency estimated that 14,068 children would receive education savings accounts in the program’s first year, including 4,841 who would transfer from public to private schools. The program would cost $106.9 million this year.

By fourth year, approximately 42,000 students would receive ESAs at a total cost of $345 million per year. The vast majority of students would have started in private school systems and stayed there.

These numbers are consistent with previous estimates released by the governor’s office.

Democrats have slammed Republicans over the cost of the plan after several years of increases in public school funding approved by the GOP lawmaker fell short of what proponents felt were needed to keep up with rising costs.

“Until we are ready to provide adequate funding for the vast majority of our public school students, we should not create a private, exclusive school admissions program with unknown costs and unlimited funding — a blank check,” said Sen. Molly Donahue, D-Cedar Rapids , a teacher in schools in Cedar Rapids for more than 30 years.

Rep. Steven Holt, R-Denison, said federal funding for K-12 education shouldn’t end at public schools.

“We can’t just fund the status quo,” Holt said. “If we want to improve education, it’s time to fund our students, not the educational institution. We can support public education and public teachers while embracing positive change.”

remove procedural obstacles

Democrats accused Republican leaders of violating legal norms in a bid to pass the law faster.

Rep. Tracy Ehlert, D-Cedar Rapids, argues against Reynolds' proposal for education savings accounts.

Rep. Tracy Ehlert, D-Cedar Rapids, argues against Reynolds’ proposal for education savings accounts.

The Senate GOP used an amendment procedure to block all proposed Democrat amendments. In the House of Representatives, Republican lawmakers voted to bypass the Appropriations Committee, which normally reviews bills that affect government spending. House Minority Leader Jennifer Konfrst, D-Windsor Heights, said the maneuvers set a bad precedent for an important piece of legislation.

“We shouldn’t pass laws or rules that circumvent the rules or procedures,” 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.”

The LSA’s tax study found that many costs cannot yet be estimated. The bill says the Iowa Department of Education can contract with an outside company to manage the ESA program, but it’s unknown how much that will cost.

Rep. Wills said he was comfortable increasing spending on the ESA program because it was a legislative priority for Republicans, who widened their majorities in the fall election.

“The bottom line is that this is a priority for the Republican faction,” Wills told IPRs river to river. “This is a priority for the governor, this is a priority for the Senate and the House of Representatives. We want to put parents back in the driver’s seat and we’re willing to pay for it.”

The School Choice Act Tax Study estimated that about 12% of students receiving ESAs would be from public schools. The remaining 88% would be existing private students or students attending private schools in kindergarten.

This story was last updated on 1/24/24 at 1:15 p.m., after Gov. Kim Reynolds signed the School Elections Act into law.