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Iowa Senate Passes Reynolds Education Bill

John Pemble
IPR file photo
The bills would create a scholarship program in a publicly-funded account that could be spent on educational costs, including tuition at a private school.

In the Iowa Senate, lawmakers have passed an education package that would put public funding into independent charter schools and scholarship accounts that could be put toward private school tuition.

The bill, a priority of Gov. Kim Reynolds, also ends restrictions placed on open enrollment at five districts with voluntary desegregation plans.

In nearly three hours of debate Thursday, Democrats criticized the plan as an effort to divert funding away from the public school system, further weakening under-resourced schools. Republicans supporting the bill said it would serve as a lifeline for underprivileged and minority students who have few options outside of their poor-performing public schools.

“Children are constitutionally entitled to an education,” said Sen. Amy Sinclair, R-Allerton. “They are not constitutionally entitled to a public school system. They are entitled to an education.”

The bill would create a “student first scholarship” program available to approximately 10,000 students in 34 underperforming schools placed in a category for "comprehensive support and improvement" under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA).

The Legislative Services Agency estimates each student would be eligible for around $5,270 in a publicly-funded account that could be spent on educational costs, including tuition at a private school.

Sen. Todd Taylor, D-Cedar Rapids, said struggling schools need more resources to improve, but school choice would have the opposite effect.

“The diversion of public moneys in this bill will further hinder those schools in need,” Taylor said. “Will they then be able to attract the best teachers? I think not. This bill will further hurt hurting schools.”

According to the LSA, about 345 students would likely apply for accounts in fiscal year 2023, the first year of the program, with an impact of $2.1 million dollars of lost funding for public schools. By the third year, participation would likely increase to 735 students for an impact of $3.8 million.

The bill also establishes a new system to create independent charter schools that are not overseen by local elected public school boards. Enrollment would not be limited to students from public schools with a "comprehensive" designation. There was no estimate for funding potentially diverted for students likely to enroll in charters.

Democrats introduced several unsuccessful amendments, including anti-discrimination language for private schools accepting funding through the scholarship accounts. Sen. Sarah Trone Garriott, D-Windsor Heights, said schools accepting public funding should be required to accept students regardless of their religion, race or disability.

“When private schools deem these children too hard to educate, too challenging to care for, too disruptive, too whatever, they can choose to unenroll them and there’s no recourse. The private institution has all the choice,” Trone Garriott said.

The bill includes a non-discrimination clause for charter schools, but Sen. Sinclair said funding through the accounts to private schools should be treated like other scholarship programs, not like direct funding to public schools or charters.

“We have all kinds of scholarships to students within our state budget. None of those scholarships require the accepting school, university, institution, to change their admissions policies,” Sinclair said, adding that embracing diversity should include diversity among different kinds of nonpublic schools.

The proposal passed on a vote of 26-21 with three Republicans joining Democrats voting against it — Sen. Tom Shipley, R-Nodaway; Sen. Annette Sweeney, R-Alden; and Sen. Dawn Driscoll, R-Williamsburg.

In the Iowa House, Speaker Pat Grassley said Republicans are continuing to look at the proposal and are open to it, but he does not expect the chamber to move to a vote as quickly as the Senate.

Grant Gerlock is a reporter covering Des Moines and central Iowa