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Private school assistance nearing vote in Iowa Legislature
Nonpartisan fiscal agency has yet to weigh in with its own cost estimates
Caleb McCullough, Gazette-Lee Des Moines Bureau
Jan. 19, 2023 6:50 pm, Updated: Jan. 19, 2023 7:10 pm
DES MOINES — Iowa legislative leaders expect Gov. Kim Reynolds’ private school assistance proposal to come to a floor vote early next week in both the House and the Senate.
Reynolds, a Republican, announced the bill Jan. 10, and it has dominated the first two weeks of the legislative session. Republicans have fast-tracked it through the lawmaking process in both chambers.
“I haven’t set an exact time, but I would say early in the week would be the expectation,” Republican House Speaker Pat Grassley, of New Hartford, said Thursday.
House Democratic leader Jennifer Konfrst, of Windsor Heights, said she expects the bill to go to a floor vote on Monday.
If the bill passes through both chambers, it will go to Reynolds’ desk to be signed into law. Next week is National School Choice Week, a week of advocacy and events focused on giving parents broader options in education.
Grassley maintained confidence that Republicans have the votes to pass the bill this year. A far narrower private school scholarship program last year failed to gain support of several Republicans in the House, some from rural areas who were concerned about how it would affect public schools in their districts.
“I don’t think I’d be moving the bill along the process if we didn’t have that expectation” that it will pass, Grassley said.
Reynolds’ proposal this year would provide parents the option of using $7,598 in taxpayer funds — the state’s per-pupil K-12 education allotment — to send their child to a private school. The money can be used on tuition, supplies and other educational expenses.
In the first year, the program would be open to all public school students who were not enrolled last year in private schools, and to students starting kindergarten at a private school. Private school students in families making up to 300 percent of the federal poverty level would also be eligible in the first year. Reynolds' office estimates the program would cost nearly $107 million in the first phase.
By the time it’s fully phased in, the program would be open to all students in public and private schools, regardless of income, and would cost the state $341 million annually, according to estimates from Reynolds' office.
The state’s nonpartisan fiscal agency has not yet analyzed the bill.
School districts would get $1,250 in state funding for each student who lives in the district but attends a private school. Schools would also be able to use unspent money in certain categorical funds to increase teacher salaries.
Democrats urge public pressure
Speaking with reporters Thursday, Democrats urged Iowans opposed to the measure to contact their representatives over the weekend in preparation for the floor debate. Democrats, who are in the minority in both chambers, have uniformly opposed the bill.
Konfrst said the bill is unpopular with Iowans: More than half of Iowans opposed Reynolds’ narrower proposal in a Des Moines Register/Mediacom Iowa Poll last year.
“Remind your legislators that we don’t work for the governor; we work for constituents,” Konfrst said. “So we’re asking Iowans to let them know that and remind them that we are not here to do the governor’s bidding; we’re here to do the work of the people.”
Senate Democratic Leader Zach Wahls of Coralville said he expects the Senate will consider the legislation early next week as well.
Bill clears last hurdle in Senate
The legislation advanced through the Senate Budget Committee Thursday. Committee leaders from the Republican majority combined the two legislative committee steps into one hearing, and the bill passed both steps along party lines.
Because the proposal includes new state spending, it was required to pass through both the education policy and budget committees. The Republican-led House drafted a new rule that allowed them to skip the budget committee in that chamber.
Sen. Tim Kraayenbrink, a Republican from Fort Dodge who chairs the Senate Budget Committee, said he expects the governor’s estimate is a “conservative figure,” and that the program would cost even more. Still, Kraayenbrink said, he supports the bill and believes it will work within the state budget because of majority Republicans’ “conservative budgeting practices.”
Nonpartisan fiscal note
The nonpartisan Legislative Services Agency has not analyzed the fiscal impacts of the bill, and Democrats have said they’d like to see those estimates before it goes to a floor vote. Konfrst said the agency’s fiscal estimate may come Monday.
“That’s not a lot of time to look over something that’s going to be a billion-dollar project over four years,” she said. “We think that it’s only fair, when we’re spending this much taxpayer money, we should know where it’s coming from and how much it’s going to impact the rest of the budget.”
Grassley said he’d like to see the fiscal estimate, but he pointed to the numbers coming out of the governor’s office and said Republicans have been transparent about the cost of the program.
“The goal is obviously to have that, but if we don’t have that, we have been very transparent and clear with what the costs are, not just with this but in the entirety of the budget moving forward — up to even five years” he said. "That’s really a long projection to make any sort of budget decision.”
Erin Murphy of The Gazette Des Moines Bureau contributed.