DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — Any Iowa student who wants to attend a private school could use public funds to pay for tuition or other expenses under a plan approved by the Legislature early Tuesday, giving the state the third is to pass a measure allowing such spending with few restrictions.
Republicans passed the bill despite objections from Democrats and others who argued that the new education savings accounts would result in less funding for public schools. Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds, who made the private school funding measure one of her top priorities after twice previously failing to pass similar but less accommodative proposals, said she would sign the law later Tuesday.
“For the first time, we will be funding students instead of a system, a critical step in ensuring every child in Iowa can have the best possible education,” Reynolds said in a statement. “Parents, not the government, can now choose the most appropriate educational institution for their child, regardless of their income or zip code.”
The bill passed the State House late Monday and the Senate early Tuesday, only with Republican support.
With passage of the bill, Iowa will join West Virginia and Arizona as states that provide taxpayer money to help families pay tuition and other private school expenses with few restrictions, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Other states offer such assistance, but only to families who meet eligibility requirements for income, disability, or other factors.
Lawmakers are also considering a similar program in other states, including Florida, Nebraska, Virginia and Utah.
Iowa Republicans, who hold large majorities in the House and Senate, approved the bill remarkably quickly, with final passage scheduled for the third week of the legislative session. An impartial analysis by the Legislative Services Agency estimated the measure would cost $344.9 million annually in its fourth year after full implementation. The agency found that its assessment was made without knowing some details, including the cost of paying a company to oversee the program.
The governor and Republican lawmakers have argued that while they support the state’s public schools, all families should be able to send their children to private school, not just those wealthy enough to pay the tuition Afford. They note that students who choose to go to a private school would pass their $7,600 per student grant to the private entity, but the plan would send $1,200 to the public school districts where the students reside. Public funding would also be available to students already enrolled in private schools, with family income requirements being phased out over a three-year period.
During Monday night’s debate, Rep. Steven Holt, a Republican from Denison, said Democrats exaggerated what private school funding would mean for public schools.
“If indeed large numbers of students were to leave public schools to attend accredited private schools, then it becomes profoundly clear how important it was to give parents more choice, since such an exodus would expose the reality of these schools and the needs of ours.” students don’t meet,” Crawford said.
Democratic lawmakers and other opponents of the plan countered that Iowa lawmakers had provided insufficient support for years, forcing districts to repeatedly cut their budgets. They said the new plan would exacerbate funding problems, particularly hitting the state’s largest urban borough and some of its smallest rural counties.
They found that nearly half of Iowa’s 99 counties have no private schools and that most of the new funding will go to schools in the state’s largest cities.
“This legislation is a blank check for private schools in Iowa’s largest and wealthiest cities with no oversight, no accountability. And if everything collapses, rural schools that close because of this legislation cannot simply reopen,” said Rep. Sami Scheetz, a Cedar Rapids Democrat.
Kari Mahler, a first-grade teacher in the East Sac County Community School District in largely rural Northwest Iowa, said her biggest concern with the new program is that it allocates public funding to private schools, even though those schools aren’t required to accept all students. including people with disabilities.
After a difficult few years as teachers tried to navigate the COVID-19 crisis, Mahler said the plan leaves them discouraged.
“It feels like we’re just getting knocked down again,” she said.
But for proponents of the plan like Oliver Bardwell of Waukee, a suburb of Des Moines, the key is to give parents more choices.
“Parents want a voice, and they want an election,” Bardwell said at a public hearing on the plan last week. “They want to be heard and they want their children to have the opportunity to have an education that is consistent with their family values.”
Kevin Welner, director of the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado Boulder, said regardless of whether public funding for private schools is fair, research shows that students who drop out of public schools typically don’t benefit, on average. Much of that result depends on the quality of a private school, and that can vary dramatically, Welner said in an email.
“If using a voucher to transfer to a private school was not beneficial, the obvious political question is why? And the obvious answer is that the private schools weren’t very good,” Welner said. “We know that some private schools are excellent while others are terrible. There is quite a variation.”
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