A bill to divert public school funds to private schools received an emotional hearing at the statehouse Tuesday.
Under the so-called school choice bill, the state would take most of the money that would normally cover one student’s education in a public school and give it to a family to cover private school tuition instead, up to $5,000.
Advocates for private schools, including religious schools, lined up in favor of the bill.
“This is about families, it’s about students, it’s about people being able to make a choice as to where their kids go to school,” said Trish Wilger with Iowa Advocates for Choice in Education. “This goes a long way to give parents a choice who otherwise don’t have one.”
"Everybody at this table who's an elected official has made a commitment and talked about how public education is as priority," countered Melissa Peterson with the Iowa State Education Association. "Please vote against this piece of legislation."
Under the bill, the grants would be provided to kindergarten students entering private school, or to students leaving public school for a private education.
Tara Tarnowski has a second grader at Perkins Elementary School in Des Moines. She’s concerned about how local schools will be affected when students leave.
“When they leave those schools, that per-pupil funding is going to leave with them,” Tarnowski argued. “That’s going to negatively affect the public school.”
The cost to the state treasury would be minimal, since money already being spent on education would be shifted to private schools, not increased.
However, by one estimate the cost to public schools could reach $50 million per year.
The bill was scaled back from a more expensive proposal last year that would have given grants to all
private school students in the state.
The bill advanced on a party line vote.
Rep. Mary Mascher (D-Iowa City) is “vehemently” opposed to the bill.
“For us to even have a subcommittee on it seems irresponsible,” Mascher said. “We shouldn’t even be sitting here today.”
“This doesn't need to be a polarizing issue,” responded the bill’s author, Rep. Walt Rogers (R-Cedar Falls). “Everybody in this room cares about education.”
Critics argued the bill violates the separation of church and state. Backers say similar programs have withstood court challenges in other states.