Government

House education leader gives up on 'voucher' plan for this year

Rogers: 'I still believe in it very much'

The dome of the State Capitol building in Des Moines is shown on Tuesday, January 13, 2015. (Adam Wesley/The Gazette)
The dome of the State Capitol building in Des Moines is shown on Tuesday, January 13, 2015. (Adam Wesley/The Gazette)

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 Rogers, R-Cedar Falls, who has been pushing educational savings accounts 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 in the House before Friday’s funnel deadline likely ends action on vouchers this year, a similar bill is alive in the Senate Appropriations Committee.

Appropriations bills are not subject to the self-imposed funnel deadline for non-money legislation that requires 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 of the concept that would allow parents to use public dollars for private school tuition and expenses. “I’ve got some members who are still not fully there where I’m at.”

The legislation found supporters in private, religious schools across the state and in school choice advocates.

“We continue to believe that every family should have the ability to choose an education that best fits the needs of their child or children regardless of their economic situation,” said Nick Ireland, spokesman for Xavier Catholic Schools. “An education savings grant program would really help families in our community who currently do not have real choice in education to finally have one.”

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Trish Wilger, the executive director of Iowa Advocates for Choice In Education, said she was disappointed by its failure in the House.

“I think the state’s budget outlook probably had something to do with it,” Wilger said. “And also, it’s a large undertaking and it takes a lot of time to get people to understand and accept a transformative program, like what’s proposed in that bill.”

Rep. Sharon Steckman, D-Mason City, said the fiscal impact concerned lawmakers.

“People support choice. I support choice,” Steckman said, “but using public funds for some of those choices is not where our money should be going.”

The state already spends about $54 million of tax money a year supporting private schools and students.

She thought it was obvious early on that the bill didn’t have enough support to get out of committee.

“I think a lot of it was theatrics,” she said. “You know, ‘Here’s the bill, we’re going to talk about it, get it to the floor for debate.’ I don’t think the votes were there to ever make it happen.”

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

Wilger, too, said she expects the push for a school voucher program will continue.

“There’s definitely strong interest in it, and I know the fight to give parents and children these education opportunities and choices they need will continue,” Wilger said. “We’ll all be back and talking about this again in the future.”

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Earlier this week, an Education subcommittee approved House Study Bill 651 3-2 on party lines. The savings grants, worth up to $5,000 per student, would have allowed parents to use state dollars to pay for private school tuition and related expenses.

To many public school advocates, the proposal was taken as an assault on Iowa’s public districts. Tammy Wawro, the president of the Iowa State Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, said any program diverting resources from public schools to private entities “is a problem.”

“The uncertainty that this would bring as far as students going in and out of our school systems, the fact that taxpayers would be funding private, religious choices for other people, that would open such a can of worms that it scares me for Iowa,” Wawro said.

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

For members of the House Education Committee, concerns were both financial and philosophical, Rogers said.

“Some still believe some of the misleading things that are out there like it’s going to gut public education and destroy rural schools,” Rogers 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.

Instead, they would be available only to students already enrolled in public schools and new kindergartners enrolling in private schools for the first time. Early estimates showed the program would cost about $17 million.

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Although Wawro said the bill’s failure in the House was a win for public education, she said she hopes the people who spoke out in opposition to the program don’t grow quiet.

“I’m hesitant to feel extremely relieved for our public schools and our students because there are always ways that something could come back before the end of session,” Wawro said. “ … I don’t want anyone to let up their guard.”

l Comments: (319) 398-8375; james.lynch@thegazette.com

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