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Iowa House panel advances Kim Reynolds’ scholarship plan for private school students
House committee splits along party lines after more than an hour of comment
DES MOINES — After more than an hour of comments Tuesday, a House Appropriations subcommittee split along party lines to advance Gov. Kim Reynolds’ school choice bill.
Although many of the comments were more about the merits of private schools and school choice rather than the appropriations in House Study Bill 672, Reynolds’ legislative liaison told the subcommittee that education is the state’s single-largest line item — 56 percent of the $8 billion-plus general fund budget.
For most families, that’s “money well spent,” liaison Molly Severn said, but the governor believes “parents matter … (and) deserve options.”
Iowa parents shouldn’t have to settle for a “Burger King education” for their children, the Rev. Keith Ratliff Sr. of Des Moines Christian Academy told the subcommittee.
“Hold the pickles, hold the lettuce. Let parents decide where to send kids to school,” he said.
Reynolds’ proposal would provide scholarships of as much as $5,500 a year to private school students from families with incomes of less than 400 percent of the federal poverty level — presently $110,000 a year for a family of four.
The governor’s proposal “obscures the vision of public schools to meet the needs of every student,” according to Kelly Sawyer of Common Good Iowa, a research and advocacy group.
“It panders to the emotional, narrow and uninformed attacks upon professional educators,” she said. “Our schools must offer our students an environment to explore and understand a world of diverse cultures and rich if often unpleasant history. This bill will suppress critical thinking and challenging discussion” and lead to further racial segregation.
Enrollment at Des Moines Christian Academy is 65 percent minority, Ratliff said, and Nicole Castillo Waller of Des Moines Catholic Schools said enrollment there is 30 percent minority with 15 languages spoken. Rather than seeking a narrow educational focus, she said, families are “seeking a better educational fit” that in some cases includes a faith-based approach.
In most cases, local public schools are the choice of parents, but if they can’t afford non-public school tuition, “then it’s really not a choice at all,” said Patty Lansink, superintendent of schools for the Sioux City Catholic Diocese.
That’s not the state’s responsibility, said Connie Ryan of the Interfaith Alliance of Iowa and Action Fund, especially if a school is operated as part of a church’s ministry, making it exempt from many requirements of public schools.
“Appropriating public dollars to further religious ministry and to support private schools that are allowed to discriminate and do not have to serve the needs of certain children is simply wrong,” she said.
The bill would not require non-public schools to provide services for special needs students, might allow discrimination against LGBT students and wouldn’t prioritize scholarships for the lowest-income Iowans, said Rep. Tracy Ehlert, D-Cedar Rapids. As written, it would help only 10,000 of Iowa’s approximately half million K-12 students.
“I want to remind people that for fiscal year 2022, funding for private schools and home-school services, they're already receiving over $100 million,” Ehlert said.
Helping 10,000 students is a good beginning, said Rep. Steve Holt, R-Denison. Parents need choices when their public schools are teaching “Marxist ideology … (and) hatred of our country.”
“This is why we need greater school choice,” he said, joining Rep. John Wills, R-Spirit Lake, in signing off on the bill to send it to the full Appropriations Committee.
HSB 672 originally was referred to the Education Committee before being re-referred to Appropriations. A similar bill, SF 2369, has been approved by the Senate Education and Appropriations committees.
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