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Private school tuition bill may be what’s holding up Iowa Legislature’s adjournment
Gov. Kim Reynolds’ proposal is facing hurdles in the Republican-led Iowa House for the 2nd straight year
DES MOINES — Resistance is blocking Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds’ proposal for taxpayer-funded private school tuition assistance for a second consecutive year.
And for the second year, that resistance is coming from inside the house. The Iowa House, that is — from House Republicans.
Under Reynolds’ proposal, roughly $55 million in state funding would be put toward 10,000 scholarships of roughly $5,500 each. The scholarships would be made available to moderate and low-income families of public school students who wish to instead enroll in a private school.
The aid would be drawn from the state funding dedicated to the public school district that the student is leaving. Some money from that would also go into a fund meant to aid smaller, rural schools that are impacted by students leaving for private schools.
Reynolds and other advocates for the proposal say it increases school choice for Iowa families by helping to pay for private schooling for moderate and low-income families.
Those who oppose the proposal say it could cause damage to public schools that will lose funding when students leave, and criticize it for devoting taxpayer funding to private schools that are not subject to the same regulations — especially regarding student protections and transparency — as are public schools.
Just like last year, the proposal passed out of the Republican-majority Iowa Senate, and just like last year there has not been sufficient support to pass it out of the Republican-majority Iowa House.
And time is beginning to run out on the 2022 session: Tuesday marks the 100th day, when lawmakers’ daily allowance for meals and housing expires. It is not a hard deadline, but an incentive designed to encourage legislators to have their work completed.
The session is likely to extend beyond Tuesday, since there are a number of key bills still unresolved, including the private school tuition assistance bill. And lawmakers have not yet completed their No. 1 task: crafting the next year’s state spending that takes effect July 1.
The impasse over Reynolds’ private school tuition assistance proposal may be the most significant element of legislators’ attempts to finish their work for the session. It’s something Reynolds has spent multiple years pushing and Senate Republicans have backed. But the resistance where it exists within the House Republican caucus has been firm.
Rep. Jon Thorup, a Republican from Knoxville and an Iowa State Patrol trooper, is among that unknown number of House Republicans opposed to the private school tuition assistance proposal. In a statement to the bureau, he cited uncertainty in Iowa and around the world, and the new state law that will significantly reduce state income taxes, and thus also significantly reduce state revenue in future years.
“(Former Iowa Republican Gov.) Bob Ray is a hero of mine and I ask myself, ‘What would his advice be?’ I think he’d say, ‘Jon, be conservative. We are in a storm. Don’t make any more big decisions until the storm is over,’” Thorup said in the statement. “The conservative choice here is to wait out the storm. Let’s re-evaluate in a few years.”
Thorup is not alone. A bill needs 51 votes to pass the 100-member Iowa House, which currently contains 60 Republicans. That means at least 10 House Republicans are not on board with the proposal; that number could be as high as 15 to 20.
At a recent legislative forum in the Quad Cities, two House Republicans were asked about and expressed their opposition.
One of them was Rep. Gary Mohr, a retired community college administrator from Bettendorf who leads the House’s state budget committee. The other was Rep. Ross Paustian, a farmer from Walcott who is retiring from the Legislature and not seeking re-election.
“We aren’t even close to enough votes in the House,” Paustian said at the Quad Cities forum, the Quad City Times reported. “I’m ready for the session to be over. This is my last session. That’s one thing (private school tuition assistance) I’ll come home and say, ‘I did not support that.’”
Senate Republicans are far more supportive of the proposal; 31 of 32 Senate Republicans voted for the bill when it passed in late March. The only Republican ‘no’ vote was Sen. Annette Sweeney, a farmer from Alden.
No statehouse Democrats are willing to support the proposal.
Paustian noted Reynolds and Senate Republicans could attempt to convince House Republican holdouts to vote for the private school tuition assistance proposal as part of a multi-bill grand bargain that would also help legislators complete their work and finish the session.
There are myriad candidates for such a bargain, as legislative leaders also are trying to reach agreement on K-12 curriculum transparency, unemployment benefits reductions, an E15 ethanol requirement, limits on vaccine requirements and changes to the state’s deposit recycling law.
“You know, they attach (private school tuition assistance) to some bill that 15 or 20 current ‘no’ votes say, ‘I’ve got to have that bill.’ So they’ll vote for it,” Paustian said, before adding, “I don't really see that happening.”
Rep. Jennifer Konfrst, leader of the House Democrats from Windsor Heights, said her sense is that the private school tuition assistance bill is the primary obstacle to the session’s adjournment.
“If this is all because the governor is being stubborn about vouchers, which is what we’re hearing, we know the governor is on the losing side of this issue. Iowans don’t want school vouchers,” Konfrst said. “So if that’s what we’re waiting on, we’re going to be waiting a long time. Because the more folks learn about this proposal, the less they like it.”
More than half of Iowans — 52 percent — oppose the plan to use taxpayer funding for public schools to provide private school tuition assistance, according to a Des Moines Register/Mediacom Iowa Poll from March. That number is up 3 percentage points from the 2021 Iowa Poll question on the same topic.
“We should pass the budgets and go home, because it is silly and it is irresponsible to hold folks here, keep this legislative session open just because the governor has a wish that she’s not going to get this legislative session,” Konfrst said. “It is disrespectful, and it’s a waste of everyone’s time.”
Reynolds said this week she plans to continue to advocate for the proposal, which she said she believes in “so strongly.” She also for the first time this year said she will advocate for it again in 2023 if needed, a possible indication that she sees the writing on the wall that the legislative hill may be too steep to climb again this year.
Reynolds faces re-election this fall. Her likely Democratic opponent is Des Moines businesswoman Deidre DeJear.
If Reynolds wins re-election, it’s possible the makeup of House Republicans could change enough — between retirements and primary challenges — that next year there could be enough support in the chamber to pass her proposal.
“I’m never going to give up on that (private school tuition assistance proposal) until (legislators adjourn), and if we don’t do that, I’m going to come back next year,” Reynolds said. “I believe so strongly in giving every parent this opportunity. … We should not be afraid of trying something different.”
There are programs that put state funding toward private schools in 16 states, according to the Education Commission of the States, an education think tank that describes itself as nonpartisan.
Sarah Watson of the Quad City Times contributed.
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