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Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
DES MOINES — A proposal to devote $341 million in taxpayer funding annually to Iowa families who want their children to attend private school drew a big crowd Thursday at the Iowa Capitol.
The first legislative hearing on Gov. Kim Reynolds’ proposal drew dozens upon dozens of Iowans. Seating in the hearing room was filled 50 minutes before the meeting started, and by the time it was underway, the room was packed and the line of speakers spilled into the hallways of the Capitol basement.
The 90-minute hearing was filled by individuals who, at the request of the legislators running the meeting, alternated between those for and against the proposal. One speaker near the end of the meeting said she was roughly the halfway point of the line of speakers opposed to the bill.
The comments largely were consistent with what so many others have said during this debate.
Supporters say the funding is needed to give more families an opportunity with state assistance to send their children to private rather than public schools.
“We know there are many parents … who would choose (a private school) if given the option,” said Greg Baker, with the Church Ambassador Network, which was created by the Christian conservative organization The Family Leader.
Opponents say the state should be focused on supporting public education, and that those schools will suffer under the proposal.
“We need to remember in the end that this is about all of our children,” said Sue Murphy, of Ankeny, an opponent who said she has six grandchildren who attend a mixture of public and private schools.
Under the proposal, roughly $7,600 in state funding — the amount the state spends per pupil on K-12 education — would be set aside for any student who attends a private school in Iowa. The money could be used for tuition, books and other classroom materials, fees and other expenses.
Public schools would lose the per-pupil funding for any students who choose to attend a private school. However, the legislation also provides to each school district roughly $1,200 for every student who lives in the district but attends a private school. That funding is devoted whether the private school student is a recent transfer or has always attended private school.
The average annual cost of parochial school tuition in Iowa ranges roughly between $2,800 and $6,000 for elementary schools and $6,000 to $9,000 for high school, according to multiple parochial school organizations.
There were 33,692 students enrolled in 183 private schools Iowa for the 2022-2023 school year, according to state education department data.
The program would be phased in over three years, giving first preference to low-income families. By the third year, all Iowa private school students would be eligible for the funding, with no income restrictions.
The governor’s office estimates the state will spend $107 million in the program’s first year. By full implementation in the fourth year, the state will spend $341 million annually.
Reynolds’ latest proposal is an expansion of her previous proposals that did not have sufficient support in the Iowa Legislature each of the past two years, despite strong Republican majorities in both the House and Senate.
But in the House, where the proposals stalled each of the past two years, this week Republican Speaker Pat Grassley said he feels “confident we’ll have the support” to pass Reynolds’ new proposal.
Public K-12 education funding comprises the largest portion of Iowa’s general fund budget annually: 43 percent in the 2021 state budget year, and 42 percent of Reynolds’ current proposal for the next state budget year that starts July 1, according to the state’s nonpartisan fiscal and legal analysis agency.
Reynolds’ budget proposes a total of $3.4 billion in general school aid to K-12 public schools.
“There is no diversion of money from public schools to private schools. That is not true, no matter how many times it’s said. It’s not true. This is not a zero sum game,” said Sen. Ken Rozenboom, a Republican from Oskaloosa who this year is the new chair of the Senate Education Committee, underscoring the $1,200 per private school pupil funding to public districts. “We in the Legislature have always supported public schools, and will continue to do so.”
But Sen. Herman Quirmbach, a Democrat from Ames and a former Iowa State University professor, said that “we’ve got to get our priorities right. The public sector is responsible for the public schools, and we’re not doing our duty.”
Majority Republicans advanced the proposal to the next step in the legislative process, making it eligible for consideration by the full Senate Education Committee.
A public hearing on the proposal will be held at 5 p.m. Tuesday at the Iowa Capitol.
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