Legislature, interest groups prepare for renewed private school scholarship push

[Sioux City Journal] Legislature, interest groups prepare for renewed private school scholarship push

Legislation addressing taxpayer-funded private school scholarships is likely to make a comeback in the next Iowa legislative session.

Proponents of the policy say they hope to see an expanded version of what was passed in the Iowa Senate during this year’s session. Senate Republicans passed a bill that would have made up to 10,000 scholarships available to students to attend private schools or charter schools. The scholarships would have been available to families making up to 400% of the federal poverty line and students with an individualized education program, generally students with disabilities or special needs.

The proposal would have seen around $55 million diverted from public schools to fund those scholarships, according to estimates from the nonpartisan Legislative Services Agency.

Proponents of the policy say it gives parents more choice over their children’s education and would help students who don’t succeed at public schools, while opponents argue it would hurt public schools; keeping taxpayer dollars in public schools would help the largest number of children.

The measure failed to pass in the last legislative session in the House, where around a dozen Republicans did not support it, many in rural districts who were concerned about the policy’s effects on schools in their area. Democrats in both chambers opposed the measure.

The bill was one of Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds’ flagship policy proposals during the last session, and she campaigned this year on bringing a similar measure back in the next session.

A spokesperson for Reynolds said she will reveal her legislative priorities in her annual Condition of the State address once the legislative session starts, and she “will never give up on providing children with the best learning environment they deserve.”

The legislative session will start Jan. 9, 2023.

The legislative landscapeHouse Republicans will create a new Education Reform Committee in the upcoming session which will deal with “bills containing significant reforms to our education system,” according to a press release. Republican House Speaker Pat Grassley of New Hartford, who will chair the committee, didn’t say whether it would consider a private school scholarship bill.

“The House Republican caucus plans to consider a broad set of education reforms this session,” he said in a statement. “This new committee will allow these important issues to be put in front of the entire caucus for the in-depth discussions they deserve.”

Both chambers also passed bills during this year’s session dealing with transparency in education, which would require schools to publish course materials and lesson plans online, but the legislation stalled amid disagreement over the private school scholarship proposal.

In the Senate, where the proposal has passed the last two years with less dissent among Republicans, Majority Leader Jack Whitver said it is too early to know exactly what will be in a Senate bill dealing with private school tuition assistance.

“I expect to debate policies similar to the bills Senate Republicans passed in the 2021 and 2022 sessions allowing parents to use scholarships to send their children to the school that best fits their needs,” he said in a statement.

Democrats are expected to oppose those measures if they come up in the next session.

“Iowans don’t care if a new committee in the Iowa Legislature is created to consider the governor’s voucher plan or other bad ideas like jailing teachers and banning books, because it’s just all politics,” House Minority Leader Jennifer Konfrst of Windsor Heights said in a statement this week. “House Democrats stand alongside Iowans and will oppose any bill that shifts money from public schools to private schools. It’s time to put people over politics.”

Advocates push for expansion

Advocates for the policy said their “gold standard” is to see a system where any family can use the funds that would go to a child’s public school for private schooling or homeschooling, rather than a limited number that was proposed in the last session.

While Iowa Republicans may not go that far this year, advocates said they expect to see a proposal that will expand on what Senate Republicans passed this year.

“If I were going to guess, and I haven’t seen a bill … it’d be more than 10,000,” Chuck Hurley, vice president and chief counsel for the conservative Christian organization The Family Leader, said. “It’d be pretty expansive. Because I think the governor is really on a mission to try to help more parents.”

Trish Wilger, executive director of the Iowa Advocates for Choice in Education, said the formation of the Education Reform Committee in the House was a sign that House Republicans will make progress on the issue.

“We aren’t certain of the intent for that committee or how education and education reform will work together, but we are optimistic that it means the House is very serious about education issues, including school choice,” she said.

But not everyone is expecting an expansion of the measure. Margaret Buckton, a lobbyist for the Rural Education Advocates of Iowa and the Urban Education Network, both of which opposed the scholarship bill, said she would be surprised to see a proposal larger than what the Senate passed in the last session.

Mike Beranek, president of the Iowa State Education Association — the union that represents teachers and educators in Iowa — declined a request for an interview because specific legislation has not been proposed. But in an emailed statement, he said the ISEA would continue opposing diverting public school dollars to private schools.

“Iowa’s public schools continue to heroically serve their communities, students and families and public dollars need to go to public education,” he said. “Spending vital taxpayer money on private school vouchers, when our public schools need resources to address the needs of the nearly half a million students attending them, is harmful to Iowans in every community across the state.”

Opponents of the idea say public opinion is on their side. In an exit poll conducted by Public Policy Polling for the liberal advocacy group Progress Iowa, 54% of respondents who voted in the November midterm said they think public tax dollars should go toward public schools only, while 39% said some students should be able to use the dollars for non-public schools.

Counting the votes

With a new class of Republican legislators, it remains to be seen whether there will be enough support in the House of Representatives to pass the legislation. Reynolds threw her support behind primary challengers to nine House Republicans that didn’t support the measure in this year’s primary election, and several of those incumbents lost in the primary.

Notably, Rep. Dustin Hite, R-New Sharon, who chaired the Education Committee and opposed the measure, lost his bid for re-election to primary challenger Helena Hayes.

“There have been some changes in who’s in the seats in the Republican majority. The Republicans have a larger majority as well,” Wilger said. “And we believe that school choice supporters are among those new faces in the House. So we are optimistic.”

On the other side, Buckton said she’s optimistic opponents can convince legislators of the harmful effects they say private school tuition assistance would have on public schools in Iowa.

“When you get to actually looking at policies and hearing from constituents about their feelings about it, I think it’s not going to be a done deal at all,” she said. “I think there will be a lot of good quality conversation.”

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