116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
She calls for spending nearly $107M on it in the first year
DES MOINES — Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds used her sixth Condition of the State address and larger Republican majorities in the Iowa Legislature to double down on — and expand — her push for school choice legislation.
Reynolds, in her annual address to a joint session of the Iowa House and Senate, on Tuesday night outlined a new plan to devote more public tax dollars to subsidize private school tuition, stating Iowa parents need more choices for their children’s education.
“Our first priority in this legislative session — and what I will be focusing on over the next four years — is making sure that every child is provided with a quality education that fits their needs,” Reynolds said.
Reynolds’ new proposal would devote the entire state per-pupil funding dedicated to every K-12 Iowa student --- $7,598 in the form of an education savings account --- to students who choose to attend private school.
The program would be phased in over three years, prioritizing kindergarten and low-income students in the first two years. In the third year, all private school students would be eligible for the savings accounts.
Public schools would receive $1,200 for any student who opts to leave a public school district for a private school, and for any student who lives in the district and attends a private school.
The governor’s office estimated roughly 14,000 students would be eligible for the program in the first year, which would cost the state an additional $106.9 million.
Reynolds’ previously proposed allocating a portion of the per-pupil funding — $5,360 — for 10,000 scholarships available for covering costs for attending a private or charter school. The program was proposed originally to be for low-income students only.
It’s a significant expansion from what Reynolds proposed last year, which failed to gain support in the Iowa House.
Iowa House Republicans have pushed back on the voucher program for the past two years over objections from rural school districts, who fear the proposal would sap state aid to public schools and limit course offerings, lead to larger class sizes and force more school consolidations.
While previous so-called school choice proposals died in the House, Republican Speaker Pat Grassley has been more optimistic about some form of legislation passing this year. He formed a new committee, which he will chair, to address education policy, including private school tuition and K-12 transparency. He said that legislation will be House Republicans’ top priority this session.
Grassley said Reynolds outlined a vision for the future that fits well with House Republicans' priorities for the 2023 Legislative Session, and that there’s more appetite within the caucus and among its 24 freshmen members for a school choice bill.
“A lot of the new members that are in our caucus ran as this being part of their platform,” he said. “There obviously is some eagerness to get this thing moving and seeing where members stand.
“It does what I said we’re trying to do, which is show support for private as well and public (schools) … and addresses some of the concerns that existed.”
The proposal was a major plank of Reynolds’ 2022 re-election campaign.
The Iowa State Education Association, a teachers union, criticized Reynolds’ private tuition assistance plan.
“This plan is not inclusive, does not require transparency nor accountability to taxpayers, and does not serve all students and families,” the union said in a statement. “We must come together to provide our public schools with the resources and support they need to continue to provide quality education to students — Iowa’s future.
“... By focusing on initiatives like early literacy, educator workforce and expanded opportunities, rather than on private school vouchers, all students can discover their full potential and find success.”
Trish Wilger, executive director of the Iowa Alliance for Choice in Education, praised Reynolds’ proposal.
“By allowing a share of the state per-pupil funding to be deposited into an education savings account — while continuing to support school districts with all local and federal funding and the remaining state dollars — parents will finally have the ability to decide what’s best for their children instead of being forced stay in a situation that prevents those kids from achieving their full educational potential,” Wilger said in a statement.
‘This isn’t about money’
The governor said her focus continues to be on raising the quality of education in every Iowa school and for every single child, and that parental choice in education is not a zero-sum game.
“This isn’t about money,” Reynolds said, noting Iowa has increased school funding by $1 billion in the past decade, and that other states spend less — with better or similar results.
“It’s also not about public versus private schools,” the governor said. “If we’re really going to make sure that every child has a quality education, then we have to set aside this us-versus-them mentality.
“ … We have incredible public schools filled with amazing, dedicated teachers,” Reynolds said, noting her daughter is among them. “But every child is an individual who deserves an education tailored to their unique needs, and parents are in the best position to identify the right environment.”
Reynolds also proposed allowing for more flexibility in how public schools can use their state-provided dollars, including to increase teacher salaries.
“Right now, there is almost $100 million earmarked for specific programs that remains unspent in school districts across Iowa,” she said. “ … Let’s focus on making sure we reward those teachers who work so hard to make a difference in our children’s lives.”
Abortion and pregnancy
Reynolds did not outline plans for further efforts to restrict abortion in the state, but called on lawmakers to add to the $500,000 the Iowa Legislature allocated last year toward funding nonprofit organizations that encourage alternatives to abortion. These organizations, often called pregnancy centers, provide services such as pregnancy and adoption counseling for expecting and new parents.
Reynolds called for funding to provide nonprofit grants to assist at-risk fathers and promote paternal involvement, as well as mentorship for school-age males.
Mazie Stilwell, director of public affairs for Planned Parenthood Advocates of Iowa, said the clinics have a long and documented history of misleading women and misrepresenting themselves as legitimate medical providers.
Planned Parenthood, in a statement, argued Republican lawmakers who want to outlaw abortion are selling the anti-abortion centers as legitimate health care meant to support women once abortion is banned in Iowa.
Republican leaders of both the House and Senate have said they plan to work on expanding the program this legislative session.
The governor also called on lawmakers to fund two additional specialty hospitals that use local primary care providers to connect rural patients with obstetric and gynecological care. Lawmakers in 2021 funded two such “Centers of Excellence” in Carroll and Grinnell. Reynolds as well proposed funding four obstetrics fellowships for primary care doctors to help address the critical demand for services in rural Iowa.
She also announced increased funding for a health care apprenticeship program created last year, taking it from $3 to $15 million.
“This session, in everything we do, let’s promote strong and healthy families,” Reynolds said.
The governor also proposed increasing penalties for manufacturing and distributing fentanyl, boosting sentences when sales lead to death.
“That means longer sentences and higher fines, even where the quantity is small,” Reynolds said.
The governor also proposed allowing first-responders “the tools they need to save lives and allow them to get naloxone into the hands of the individuals who need it most.” Currently, only pharmacists in the state can distribute the drug that reverses the effects of an overdose.
Recently elected Iowa Republican Attorney Brenna Bird has proposed legislation that would make the sale of a controlled substance, not counting marijuana, resulting in death or serious injury to be punishable by a Class-B felony. Currently, there are no heightened penalties in state law if a death occurs.
While Iowa maintains one of the lowest overdose death rates in the country, Reynolds said Iowa still is experiencing unacceptable trends.
Opioid-related deaths in Iowa reached a record high 258 in 2021, up 64 percent compared with 2019, with the largest increase occurring among young Iowans under 25, according to the Governor’s Office of Drug Control Policy. Illicit fentanyl was implicated in 83 percent of the most recent deaths, reflecting how widespread powerful synthetic opioids have become, including as an adulterant in other substances for unsuspecting users, according to the office.
Reynolds also proposes merging 37 executive cabinet agencies to 16.
She said Arkansas, Mississippi and Oklahoma all have populations and budgets similar to Iowa, but just 15 cabinet members each.
“The result is unnecessary friction for Iowans, with services spread unpredictably across state government. Eleven agencies currently operate some kind of workforce program; more than 100 professional licensing functions are spread across eleven agencies. And these are just two of the most glaring examples,” she said.
Democrats push back
Democrats and progressives criticized Reynolds for pushing what they see as an extreme agenda they argue is unpopular and out of touch with what a majority of Iowans want, based on public polling.
Iowa House Minority Leader Jennifer Konfrst, D-Windsor Heights, referenced public polling that has showed a majority of Iowans opposed to the school choice pitch Reynolds made last year.
“Iowans didn’t like the plan when there were income limits on it,” Konfrst said. “They’re certainly not going to like it when it means that a rich family in Des Moines can put their money in savings and take taxpayer dollars to their private school while public schools across the state crumble. … And certainly making sure that rich families get a chance to use taxpayer dollars to subsidize private education is not the way to go.”
Konfrst described Reynolds’ speech as divisive. She referenced in particular the early moments of Reynolds’ speech, when the governor highlighted past criticisms of statehouse Republicans’ previous legislative proposals.
“That’s not what leadership looks like,” Konfrst said. “Leadership looks like coming together and finding common ground. She clearly has no interest in that.”
Republicans applaud ‘bold’ agenda
Senate Majority Leader Jack Whitver of Grimes said Reynolds laid out an “extremely bold agenda” and he was comfortable with the education savings account proposal she detailed.
Whitver said he’s supportive of the proposal having no income limit.
“I don’t have any personal concerns with that,” he said. “We’ll go to caucus tomorrow and talk about it with all of our members, but I’m comfortable with that.”
Whitver indicated before the session he’d like to get a private school assistance bill out through the lawmaking process early in the session. He said the bill, which was filed Tuesday night, may be brought up in a subcommittee this week or next.
He said the House, Senate and governor had ironed out some consensus on the issue over the last month.
“We’ve continued to talk with her, talk with the House, to figure out what the House is comfortable with, what we’re comfortable with, and hopefully we can find agreement here in the next couple weeks,” he said.
On Reynolds’ plan to consolidate Iowa’s 37 state agencies, Whitver said he was happy with the way the proposal took a holistic look at the government structure.
“The government is something that, over time, it just grows,” he said. “Sometimes it doesn’t make sense where different departments are located.”
Reynolds has been Iowa’s chief executive since 2017 and is the state’s first female governor.
Caleb McCullough of The Gazette-Lee Des Moines Bureau contributed to this report.
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