As expected, the centerpiece of Gov. Kim Reynolds’ Condition of the State speech Tuesday was a call for state lawmakers to provide publicly funded scholarships for private school students. What wasn’t expected is the sweeping scope of the governor’s latest proposal.
Reynolds would provide $7,598 scholarships to families based on income levels during the first two years of her plan. That’s equal to per-pupil state funding provided to public schools. In year one, the plan would cost an estimated $107 million.
But in year three, every Iowa student would be eligible for a scholarship. The cost of such a broad scholarship plan is sure to be high, transferring state dollars to private schools that would otherwise go to public schools attended by the vast majority of Iowa’s students.
Reynolds claims Republicans’ election victories produced a mandate for such action on what she calls school choice. But the governor didn’t campaign on making every Iowa student eligible for scholarships. Last year, the governor proposed 10,000 scholarships at roughly $5,500 per student. That was the plan she ran on and now has dramatically expanded.
Reynolds did unveil some plans to help public schools, including making state resources available to struggling school districts. As part of her scholarship plan, public schools would receive $1,200 for any student who opts to leave a public school district for a private school, and for any student who lives in the district and attends a private school.
But those measures are unlikely to make up for dollars lost to scholarships. And the governor’s budget plan provides just a 2.5 percent increase in state aid to public schools while also building a $2 billion ending balance. Lawmakers must hedge their budgetary bets as tax cuts passed in recent years take effect, potentially eroding revenues.
The governor’s scholarship plan is too costly, would eventually provide scholarships to families who don’t need them and clearly would do harm to the state’s public schools by redirecting scarce resources. That’s especially true in rural districts where no private option is available and enrollments already are declining. It’s a fundamental shift in education policy in a state that once prided itself on the quality of its public schools. The governor has failed to make the case for change.
We’d put more stock in Reynolds’ argument that she wants to improve Iowa’s entire education system if she hadn’t sold her scholarship plan on the campaign trail by attacking public schools. She repeatedly talked of “pornographic” books in school libraries, “woke” curriculum and other scare tactics. She gave away the game. This is more about politics than education.
There’s speculation at the Statehouse that majority Republicans hope to pass the governor’s scholarship plan quickly. That would be wrong and reckless. Iowans deserve time to understand the implications of this legislation and weigh in with their concerns.
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