Legislature approves private school scholarship bill

[Storm Lake Times] Legislature approves private school scholarship bill

Jones votes yes, Evans votes no

After years of setbacks, Gov. Kim Reynolds was handed a victory in the early morning hours Tuesday as the Iowa Legislature passed a bill that will send hundreds of millions in taxpayer dollars to fund private school scholarships.

The House voted 55-45 in favor of the bill Monday after hours of debate with Rep. Megan Jones, R-Sioux Rapids, in favor of it. In an interview last week with the Storm Lake Times Pilot, Jones said she was “undecided” on the matter. Shortly after midnight Tuesday, the Senate voted 31-18 with local Sen. Lynn Evans, R-Aurelia, opposed.

Evans, the retired superintendent at Alta-Aurelia School District, had expressed concerns ahead of Tuesday’s vote, saying the bill didn’t provide protections for students with individualized education plans and allows private schools to accept public money but not accept all students.

Reynolds issued a statement Tuesday saying she was “thrilled” with the approval by state legislators and looking forward “to signing it into law later today.”

“For the first time, we will fund students instead of a system, a decisive step in ensuring that every child in Iowa can receive the best education possible,” Reynolds said. “With this bill, Iowa has affirmed that educational freedom belongs to all, not just those who can afford it.”

The bill will phase in over three years and provide students with $7,598 each year in educational savings accounts (ESA) to be used for private school tuition. That figure is the same amount of state funding provided to public school students and expected to increase in the future.

The ESAs will be available beginning with the 2023-24 school year. According to the bill, students currently attending private schools must meet income limits to qualify in the first two years of the program. By the third year, all private students will be eligible.

The nonpartisan Legislative Services Agency released a fiscal analysis Monday that said the private school scholarships would cost roughly $107 million in the 2024 fiscal year. Once the program is fully running, the LSA said it will cost the state nearly $345 million per year to the tune of nearly $1 billion overall.

Opponents argue that using state money to pay for students to attend private schools will fuel inequity since private schools can choose whom to accept and are not held to the same standards of transparency as public schools — concerns expressed by Sen. Evans.

“We are beyond disappointed in the votes … in the Iowa House and Senate giving nearly $1 billion in public taxpayer money to private schools in the first four years alone,” Iowa State Education Association President Mike Beranek said in a statement. “The bill will divert essential funds from 92% of our student population and send the funds to just a select population of students admitted into private schools.”

Beranek added that almost 75% of Iowa’s public schools are in counties with no private school options and that the legislation “serves just a few, with all the people’s money.”

The school within BV County that stands to gain the most from the new legislation is St. Mary’s. Fr. Bruce Lingle, the school’s president, said last week that the legislation is “a wonderful opportunity for those who may not have the personal financial means to make the choice of education they want for their children.”

Lingle said St. Mary’s has long served both Catholics and non-Catholics alike from “various backgrounds and means” and praised Reynolds for her efforts.

“We appreciate the governor’s leadership in empowering parents with the opportunity to make their own school choice,” he said.

Multiple public school administrators in Buena Vista County contacted by the Times Pilot ahead of the legislature’s vote voiced concerns about the bill.

“Public money is what funds public schools and we have to meet requirements that currently private schools don’t have to meet,” said Newell-Fonda Supt. Jeff Dicks. “If the state is giving public money, it seems reasonable that (private schools) should follow the same rules. For example, they can turn down any student they want. We take them all.”

Storm Lake Supt. Stacey Cole said it’s important for all schools receiving taxpayer dollars to be held to the same standards of “transparency” and be expected to educate all children on a level playing field.

“I would also like for schools that take any ESAs to be required to take all, meaning they would have the inability to turn kids away,” said Cole. “Public schools don’t turn kids away, so it seems logical that private schools would have the same expectations for serving all kids regardless of their needs as we are expected to do if they are going to receive ESAs.”

“Public schools take all students all the time, which is not the same standard as private schools,” said Alta-Aurelia Supt. Denny Olhausen. “Due to that, I truly feel that this legislation in the long run … could create an even wider gap in socioeconomic status in schools for our students.”

Dicks said he ultimately does not expect the bill to have a “large scale” effect on Newell-Fonda. He also said that Reynolds routinely touts the need for “school choice,” but believes many parents were given just that in 2021 when the legislature loosened open enrollment rules, making it easier for parents to move children into new K-12 schools while classes are in session.

“I don’t understand the perception that there is this big demand for school choice in Iowa,” Dicks said. “Open enrollment deadlines were eliminated so people can now have school choices any time they want. I have taken four kids since Christmas break using open enrollment.”

“Open enrollment seems to fill the need for choice, so I get a little confused when I hear all of the discourse about the need for more choice,” Cole said. “I always believe that kids should find the school that best fits their needs.  I can’t imagine even in our little corner of the state that kids can’t find a school that fits them and serves them well without needing to give public dollars to private schools.”

Olhausen said that he “strongly believes” in parents having a choice where their children attend school and “open enrollment has allowed that for parents, which makes this legislation unnecessary.”