116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
CEDAR RAPIDS — A group of mainly Democratic Linn County lawmakers voiced opposition Saturday during a legislative forum to Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds' private school assistance bill, and decried what they see as "mean-spirited" legislation from Republican lawmakers targeting LGBTQ and low-income Iowans.
Lawmakers could begin debating as early as Monday Reynolds’ flagship proposal to allow parents to use $7,598 in public funds — the amount the state spends per pupil on public K-12 education — for a savings account to send their child to a private school.
The governor’s office estimates the program would cost $341 million annually once fully implemented. Besides letting families spend the funds on private schools, the plan also provides new funding to public districts — estimated at about $1,200 per student — for those who live in the district but attend private schools.
Linn County Democratic state lawmakers said the move will divert funds away from already struggling public schools.
“You’re pulling money out of a district that is going to make it harder for (public school students) to get their services,” Rep. Tracy Ehlert, D-Cedar Rapids, who works in early childhood education, said at the Linn County League of Women Voters forum.
Reynolds, who on Friday released an “open letter” advocating for the proposal, argued it will give more options to parents and increase the quality of education for all Iowa students.
"For most Iowa families, a public education will continue to be their first choice," she wrote. "But for families who otherwise can’t afford a private school that may be a better fit for their children, it makes new opportunities attainable."
Rep. Eric Gjerde and Sen. Molly Donahue, both Cedar Rapids Democrats who have or currently work in public schools, argue the measure would siphon resources from public schools to fund the education of a few students at private schools, which lack the same kind of oversight, transparency and accountability.
“There is massive inequality in this,” said Sen. Todd Taylor, D-Cedar Rapids.
While supporters say the legislation gives families more educational options, Gjerde, Donahue and others noted those expanded options are not available to all students.
Rep. Sami Scheetz, D-Cedar Rapids, said private schools may remain inaccessible for many. Nearly half of Iowa’s 99 counties, most of them rural, do not have any private schools.
Critics as well note LGBTQ students and others do not have guaranteed acceptance to private institutions, nor do they have the anti-discrimination policies of public schools.
Gjerde noted his twin daughters, who have phonological disorders and dyslexia, would likely be denied admission in a private school because of the additional educational needs they require.
Public schools “welcome every single student that walks through our door, regardless of their situation,” said Gjerde, who worked as a special-education teacher in Iowa for 20 years. “A school choice as the governor has put it is literally that — schools get to choose who they have in their building. Parents and students may not be able to choose because a school might say ‘no.’”
Sen. Charlie McClintock, of Alburnett, the lone Republican to participate in Saturday’s forum, said he has not yet decided whether to support the bill. McClintock said he still is reviewing it along with comments from constituents.
“The jury still is out here,” he said. “I don’t have an answer today, but I will promise you as I’ve always done, I will vote the will of the people of District 42.”
All Linn County state lawmakers were invited to participate in Saturday’s forum. Rep. Cindy Golding, R-Cedar Rapids, declined the invitation, according to the League of Women Voters. Rep. Thomas Gerhold, R-Atkins, cited a scheduling conflict and Rep. Elizabeth Wilson, D-Marion, was ill, according to the league.
Democratic lawmakers also called out Republicans for advancing “mean-spirited” legislation that would impose strict limitations on what food items SNAP recipients could use the benefits to buy, including fresh meat, white bread, sliced cheese and canned fruits and vegetables. It would also require an asset limit on SNAP recipients and require Medicaid recipients to work at least 20 hours a week to receive health care benefits.
Reps. Art Staed and Jeff Cooling, both Cedar Rapids Democrats, said that will inflict unnecessary financial strain on Iowa’s most vulnerable residents struggling to keep up with the rising cost of food and still reeling from inflation and job losses.
GOP lawmakers as well put forward a bill that would prohibit teaching about gender identity and sexual orientation in certain grades, and would prohibit schools from taking steps from affirming or recognizing a student’s preferred gender identity in school without written consent from their parents.
Supporters say it reinforces parents' rights to make decisions regarding the upbringing of their children. Cedar Rapids Democratic Sen. Liz Bennett, the first openly LGBTQ woman to serve in the Iowa Senate, and Donahue said the measure undermines LGBTQ support in schools, and that parental notification requirements could effectively require teachers to “out” LGBTQ students grappling with their personal identity to potentially unsupportive family members.
"If we want to keep growing as a state, we have to stop with this hateful and divisive rhetoric that we’re hearing in the statehouse,“ Scheetz said.
The next Linn County forum will be from 10 to 11:30 a.m. Feb. 18 at a yet-to-be-determined location. The league also will host a forum from 10 to 11:30 a.m. March 18 at the Kirkwood Linn Regional Center, 1770 Boyson Rd., Hiawatha.
The Johnson County League of Women Voters will host forums from 9:30 to 11 a.m. Jan. 28 and Feb. 25 in The Center Assembly Room, 28 S. Linn Street, Iowa City. Doors open at 9 a.m.
All Johnson County elected officials have been invited to participate in the legislative forums. City Channel 4 will livestream the legislative forums and its YouTube channel, and the League’s Facebook page and website, lwvjc.org.
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