IOWA LEGISLATURE

Iowa 'school choice' bills moving quickly

Democrats question costs and timing of the measures

The Iowa Capitol is seen in Des Moines on Thursday, Dec. 19, 2019. (Andy Abeyta/The Gazette)
The Iowa Capitol is seen in Des Moines on Thursday, Dec. 19, 2019. (Andy Abeyta/The Gazette)

DES MOINES — Legislative Republicans pushed Gov. Kim Reynolds’ state-funded “students first” private school scholarship program closer Tuesday to floor debate during a week the governor proclaimed to celebrate and raise awareness about K-12 school choices.

One day after the Senate Education Committee narrowly approved Senate File 159 — the governor’s plan to provide up to $5,200 state scholarships to cover private school or home schooling tuition and other expenses — the Senate Ways and Means Committee voted 9-6 to approve two tax-related elements of the bill and return it to the debate calendar.

The Senate Appropriations Committee is slated to take up the measure Wednesday, which would remove the last procedural hurdle to bring it before the full Iowa Senate as early as Thursday.

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The Iowa House took some unusual procedural moves Tuesday during the session’s first month to keep the proposal moving forward as the House Education Committee plodded through the legislative process, with Democrats expressing concern Iowans are not having an adequate chance to analyze a proposal setting up private school vouchers with taxpayer money and Republicans denying the bill is on a fast track.

“This is, quite frankly, a very radical departure for public education,” said Sen. Pam Jochum, D-Dubuque, during Tuesday’s Senate committee meeting to consider a bill she believed should have “all parties at the table.”

“The public should have time to weigh in on these important changes in policy affecting public education in our state,” Jochum said in an interview. “Obviously, the faster they move it, the less chance there is for push back from the public that’s not happy with this kind of a change because it will take about $54 million and shift it from public education to private.” She questioned making such a move when schools are facing additional expenses in dealing with COVID-19.

Reynolds has said she is championing the bill because it “will help every child receive a quality education regardless of income and no matter their ZIP code. It has the potential to raise the quality for all schools, public and private.”

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The governor’s staff estimates the bill initially would cost up to $3 million, even though about 10,000 students attending 34 public schools that are receiving support under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act would qualify for the scholarship fund.

Democrats are pushing for a fiscal note from the nonpartisan Legislative Services Agency to fully understand the budget implications.

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DES MOINES - Republican lawmakers who control the Iowa Legislature pressed ahead Monday with plans to expand school choice for parents with public funds for private and charter schools and with requiring K-12 schools to offer an in-person instruction option as the state struggles through the pandemic.

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“The numbers don’t add up,” said Jochum.

Reynolds’ bill proposes three elements of school choice by establishing state funding for students in struggling public schools who wish to attend a private school; creating a charter school program; and allowing students to transfer out of schools with voluntary or court-ordered diversity plans.

Sen. Amy Sinclair, R-Allerton, chair of the Senate Education Committee, said the legislative pace of the bill has been appropriate to give Iowans enough time to provide their input since Reynolds talked of school choice plans in her Jan. 12 Condition of the State.

Under the provisions approved Tuesday by the Senate tax-writing committee, families that deduct 25 percent of up to $1,000 spent per child for textbooks and tuition on their state income tax returns would be allowed to deduct 50 percent of the first $2,000 spent per child. Also, the bill doubles the deduction teachers can take on their state income taxes for some out-of-pocket expenses they incur — from $250 now to $500.

On a separate schools issue Tuesday, members of the House Education Committee voted 15-7 to approve legislation that would require Iowa’s public and non-public schools to provide a 100 percent in-person instruction option.

“As Iowa reopened its schools in the fall, the learning experiences have not been equitable for our children. National studies show that keeping kids out of the classrooms has resulted in considerable learning loss,” said Rep. Phil Thompson, R-Jefferson.

Before sending House File 103 to the House debate calendar, majority Republicans rejected amendments aimed at extending the time for school districts to comply so they can address bus schedules, staffing needs and other changes.

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Presuming the bill passes the Legislature and is signed into law by Reynolds, the measure would take effect no later than the second Monday after enactment.

Parents and students would be given at least five days to decide what kind of instruction they wish to receive, according to the legislation.

Democrats tried unsuccessfully to provide that state public health officials devise a COVID-19 vaccination plan for schools to protect teachers, students, staff, bus drivers and others.

The measure would still allow a waiver process if a district were hit with a viral outbreak.

Comments: (515) 243-7220; rod.boshart@thegazette.com

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