Iowa House passes Kim Reynolds' massive private school bill with Senate vote next

[The Des Moines Register] Iowa House passes Kim Reynolds' massive private school bill with Senate vote next

Iowa House passes Kim Reynolds' massive private school bill with Senate vote next

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Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds proposes private school scholarships in speech

Gov. Kim Reynolds outlines her education plan during the Condition of the State speech at the Iowa State Capitol on Tuesday, Jan. 10, 2023.

Iowa PBS

The Iowa House has passed a bill to spend hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars each year to pay families' private school costs, handing Gov. Kim Reynolds a huge win on a top legislative priority that has eluded her for years.

After more than five hours of debate, House lawmakers voted 54-45 to pass the bill.

The bill's passage, in only the third week of the legislative session, shows Republicans' commitment to delivering a quick victory for Reynolds in her third attempt at passing the legislation. The legislation sped through committees last week as House Republican leaders worked to eliminate hurdles that had doomed previous versions of the proposal.

"This bill is about freedom," said Rep. John Wills, R-Spirit Lake, the bill's House floor manager. "This bill is about freedom for the family to make a decision. This bill is about where that family feels that child will be best taught. This bill is not about attacking teachers. The opponents of this bill will state that we’re attacking teachers over and over again tonight. Nothing could be further from the truth."

More:How will Gov. Kim Reynolds' private school scholarships plan work? Here are the details

The Iowa Senate took up the bill Monday afternoon, but Senate Democrats stalled debate in the chamber while House debate was underway. However, the Senate is expected to pass the bill later Monday night, which would send it to Reynolds to sign into law.

Opponents in both chambers hammered Republicans over the legislation, arguing it would harm public education while unfairly benefitting private schools that lack accountability and can pick and choose which students they will accept.

“Spending public money with no accountability is reckless. Our public schools and students deserve better,” said Sen. Molly Donahue, D-Cedar Rapids. “Until we are willing to provide adequate funding for the vast majority of our public school students, we should not be creating a private, exclusive school entitlement program with unknown costs and unlimited funding — a blank check.”

What does the private school bill do?

The bill, House File 68, would phase in over three years and eventually allow all Iowa families to use up to $7,598 a year in an "education savings account" for private school tuition.

If any money is left over after tuition and fees, families could use the funds for specific educational expenses, including textbooks, tutoring, standardized testing fees, online education programs and vocational and life skills training.

The $7,598 per private school student is the same amount of funding the state provides to public school students and is expected to rise in future years.

Proponents of the bill say the funds would allow every family to access more options for their student's education, without financial barriers.

"This is about kids. This is about our children," Wills said. "This is about parents being in charge of their kid’s education. So let’s not lose sight of that. Let’s not lose sight of the kids in this discussion."

More:Iowa Republicans target education with bills on private schools, gender identity

Opponents argued that using state money to pay for students to attend private schools will perpetuate inequity in Iowa's education system since private schools can choose which students to accept and aren't held to the same standard of transparency as public schools.

Rep. Heather Matson, D-Ankeny, likened the education savings accounts to "a backpack full of money" for private school students, while not providing any help for public school students to pay for expenses such as tutors, AP tests and ACT exams.

"Why would it be acceptable for the families receiving vouchers to receive a direct payment from the state of Iowa to use at any school — including a private or religious institution or an online school — when every other student attending public schools does not receive such a backpack full of money?" she asked.

Public school districts would also receive an additional $1,205 in funding for students receiving education savings accounts who live within the public school district's boundaries. In addition, the bill allows public school districts to use professional development funding to provide raises to teachers.

An amendment to the bill Monday extends a program that allows school districts to share certain staff positions. The amendment also allows schools to access teacher leadership supplemental funding, even if their district does not meet the qualifications for the program.

How much would the program cost? $345 million per year

The program is expected to cost $345 million annually by its fourth year, once it is fully phased in, according to a new analysis from the nonpartisan Legislative Services Agency.

Over the course of the first four years, the state would spend about $879 million as the program phases in.

The Legislative Services Agency's analysis predicts 14,068 students will be enrolled in the program in fiscal year 2024, its first year. That includes an estimated 4,841 students who would transfer from a public school to a nonpublic school.

By fiscal year 2027, the agency expects 41,687 students in Iowa to receive education savings accounts to pay their private school costs. Over that time, the agency projects enrollment in public schools to drop from 486,476 in fiscal year 2024 to 475,207 in fiscal year 2027.

More:Kim Reynolds proposes private school scholarships for every Iowa family in Condition of the State

By the fourth year, the agency estimates public school districts will receive $49.8 million in new per-student funds for private school students within the public district's boundaries. The agency also expects a net decrease of $46 million in public school funding as a result of more students attending private schools.

The nonpartisan analysis says the cost to administer the program is unknown. The bill allows the Iowa Department of Education to contract with a third party to administer the education savings accounts, but the state has not yet issued a request for proposals from companies seeking to manage the funds.

Several House Republicans opposed the bill — but failed to stop it

The bill's passage in the House came over the objections of several Republican lawmakers who have been staunchly opposed to every version of Reynolds' private school proposal.

Still, unlike previous years, the defections weren't enough to stop the bill's passage.

Reynolds made "school choice" an issue in last year's Republican primaries, campaigning against several sitting Republican representatives who opposed her private school plan. Then, the GOP expanded its House majority to 64 seats in the general election, ushering in more supporters of the issue and giving Republican leadership an added cushion.

None of the bill's Republican opponents spoke during House debate.

But other Republicans spoke in favor of the bill. Rep. Skyler Wheeler, R-Orange City, who chairs the House Education Committee, said parents have been frustrated since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic by things like mask requirements, online school and "critical race theory."

"There are multiple examples I could give to why this has been demanded of us by parents across the state," Wheeler said. "When parents are cut out of the conversation, they are going to look at their options. Some of them may have the financial means to go to the school that they think is the best fit for their child, but not all of them."

House Minority Leader Jennifer Konfrst, D-Windsor Heights, urged Republicans to act independently, saying "we don't work for Gov. Reynolds."

"We have a legislative responsibility to vet legislation independently and vote on it not based on whether or not we’ll get primaried, not based on whether or not we think the governor will be mad at us, but based on whether or not our constituents have asked us to do this or have not," she said.

Democrats decry rules change, procedural blocks

Previous versions of the governor's bill stalled in the House, stretching the session into weeks of overtime before eventually failing to pass. Republican leaders passed a rules change this year, allowing the bill to move more quickly to the House floor without being considered by certain committees that have previously held up the process.

House Republicans created the brand-new Education Reform Committee to consider the bill. On Monday, the House approved a rules change to declare that bills assigned to the Education Reform Committee may bypass the Appropriations Committee, a group that normally considers all proposals involving state spending.

Democrats lambasted Republicans for allowing the bill to move without an Appropriations Committee hearing.

Konfrst said the bill "is not ready for prime time."

"If you want it so badly, you can still get it in March," she said. "If it’s so important to the governor that we pass this bill, you can still have it in March. These things will still be able to happen. If you have the votes, what’s the rush? There is no good answer."

The Senate moved the bill through a traditional process: it passed both the Education and Appropriations committees with no issue. However, they used a procedure to prevent Democrats from suggesting any amendments to the bill.

Sen. Bill Dotzler, D-Waterloo, the most senior senator in the chamber, said he had “never seen anything so blatant in all my years.” 

“It is a willful, blatant way of cutting everybody out from perfecting the bill, and listening to our constituents who sent us hundreds of emails of what’s wrong with it,” he said.

Stephen Gruber-Miller covers the Iowa Statehouse and politics for the Register. He can be reached by email at sgrubermil@registermedia.com or by phone at 515-284-8169. Follow him on Twitter at @sgrubermiller.

Katie Akin is a politics reporter for the Register. Reach her at kakin@registermedia.com or at 410-340-3440. Follow her on Twitter at @katie_akin.