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DES MOINES — Iowa lawmakers are set to move quickly on a bill proposed by Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds to designate millions in public funding to pay for students to attend private schools, setting the bill up for subcommittee hearings in the next week.
Reynolds’ proposal would allow parents to set up an education savings account that would receive $7,598 from the state — a student’s full per-pupil funding at a public school — that can be used for tuition, supplies and other expenses at a private school. Reynolds’ office estimates the bill would cost $106.9 million in the first year.
The House Education Reform Committee, a new committee established specifically for the purpose of considering the legislation, will hold a public hearing on the measure Jan. 17. In the Senate, a subcommittee will consider the legislation on Thursday.
Leaders in both the House and the Senate signaled as the session began this week that they wanted to move quickly on the legislation, which opponents say would be detrimental to public schools, especially those in rural areas with already strained budgets.
Supporters say the program would give parents more choice in education, help students find schools that best fit their needs, and improve the quality of both public and private education.
Republican Ken Rozenboom of Oskaloosa, the chair of the Senate Education Committee, said he supports the measure and will work with the rest of the Senate Republicans to resolve any issues with the bill. He did not say when he expects the bill to move to a full floor vote.
“I’m generally supportive,” he said. “I have not had the chance to get through all the details of it. I have questions, like everyone should have.”
While recording this week’s episode of “Iowa Press” on Iowa PBS, Republican House Speaker Pat Grassley of New Hartford said the legislation will see a vote in the Iowa House, and he thinks it has the support to pass. Grassley chairs the Education Reform Committee.
“I feel confident we'll have the support, but there’s going to be a vote in the House either way,” he said. “Iowans are going to get to see where their legislator stands on this issue.”
Grassley also didn’t say when the bill will go before the full House for a vote, but he said it will be a top priority for the chamber.
“We’re going to continue to follow the committee process, follow all the things that are tied to it with the calendars and things,” he said. “But if and when the support is there, as it moves forward, we’re obviously going to want to take action.”
What’s in the bill
The top-line item from Reynolds’ bill is the education savings accounts, which would devote $7,598 from the state that parents could use for educational expenses.
For some schools, that amounts to more than the cost of tuition: The average cost for a Catholic school in Iowa last year was between $2,800 and $4,000 for grades K-8, and $9,000 for high school, executive director of the Iowa Catholic Conference Tom Chapman said.
For Protestant Christian schools, the average is $5,938 for elementary, $6,138 for middle, and $7,592 for high school, according to the Iowa Association of Christian Schools.
Beyond tuition, the money can be spent on:
- fees or payments for educational therapies
- curriculum fees, software and materials for a course
- tuition for vocational and life skills education
- education materials and services for students with disabilities
- standardized test fees, and test fees associated with college admissions
Unspent funds in one year would roll over to the following year. Once a student graduates from high school, unspent funds in their education savings account would be returned to the state general fund.
The bill also includes measures that supporters say will allow public schools to compete with private schools and address some concerns opponents have.
Public school districts would get $1,250 in funding from the state for each student who lives in the district but attends a private school. Additionally, it allows unspent funds in teacher leadership initiatives and professional development programs to be used to increase teacher salaries.
During the first year of the program, an education savings account would be available to any student enrolled in a public school, students starting kindergarten, and families with students enrolled in a private school making less than 300 percent of the poverty line.
By the third year, all students — both public and private — would be eligible, regardless of income.
One concern opponents have raised is the lack of options for some parents in areas where there are no private schools. According to Department of Education data, there are 40 counties with no private schools, nearly all of them rural counties. There are 185 private schools in total with 33,413 students enrolled in the 2022-23 school year.
Grassley said the proposal could expand the market for private schools, meaning new schools could open in those areas that currently have no private schools.
“We've already seen expansion of current private school systems we have without a program like this,” he said during the taping of “Iowa Press.” “So there may be more of those being created around the state from a program like this.”
Despite having no opportunity for public comment on Wednesday, spectators packed committee rooms in the Capitol, many wearing “America Needs Public Schools” T-shirts and expressing opposition to Reynolds’ plan.
Tiffany Welch, a mother of two from Clive, was there to advocate against the proposal. She said she wants to see public money remain in public schools.
Welch moved from California to Iowa when she was pregnant with her first child, partly because she knew it had good schools. Now, she’s worried the school choice program will detract from that.
“I’ve seen firsthand with my own children and my own experience, how a quality public education has really impacted my life,” she said. “And I want the same for my kids.”
In a statement on Wednesday, Mike Beranek, president of the Iowa State Education Association, said private schools have less oversight over who they accept and who they employ, and that most families will not benefit from private school assistance. The ISEA represents public school teachers in Iowa.
“The ISEA stands firmly in support of Iowa’s excellent public education employees, our students, and our public schools. A strong public education system is the foundation of a healthy and prosperous state and should be guaranteed to all and fully funded,” Beranek said.
Jennifer Konfrst, the Democratic House leader, said she’s happy the Education Reform Committee will have a public hearing on the bill. While Grassley remains confident the bill will pass, Konfrst said she doesn’t think the support is locked in.
“I think it’s important that we have transparency behind this process,” she said. “And because Iowans overwhelmingly oppose school vouchers, I’m thrilled that there’s going to be a public hearing.”
In the Senate, Democratic Whip and member of the Senate Education Committee Sarah Trone Garriott of Windsor Heights said the proposal would hurt the vast majority of Iowa students in public schools.
“I want to make sure that for the parents of the 511,000 kids, Pre-K through 12 in our state, that their choices are respected and supported as well,” she said. “Any proposal that takes away from our public schools will hurt our kids.”
Erin Murphy and Tom Barton of The Gazette Des Moines Bureau contributed to this report