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Reynolds prioritizes universal state-funded private school scholarships in Condition of the State address

Gov. Kim Reynolds delivers the Condition of the State.
Kelsey Kremer
The Des Moines Register
Gov. Kim Reynolds gives the Condition of the State address to members of the Iowa Legislature inside the House Chamber, on Tuesday evening, at the Iowa State Capitol.

Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds called for universal state-funded private school scholarships, more funding for programs she said will help new parents and harsher penalties for fentanyl-related crimes in her sixth Condition of the State address on Tuesday evening.

She said the condition of the state is strong.

“Through natural disasters, a pandemic, a nationwide recession and more, Iowa’s status as a beacon for freedom and opportunity has endured,” Reynolds said.

She welcomed the new members of the House of Representatives and Senate, who make up more than one-third of state lawmakers. Reynolds thanked returning lawmakers for their work.

Then, she turned to her critics.

“We’ve been told time and time again that our bold agenda would wreck our economy, demolish our education system and lead to the collapse of state government,” Reynolds said. “We’ve heard these accusations from political opponents, as expected. But we’ve also heard them from members of the media and even from so-called experts.”

Reynolds said Republicans’ passage of collective bargaining changes, sweeping income tax cuts and requiring schools to offer in-person classes earlier in the pandemic all turned out to be good for the state.

“We ignored the hysteria and Iowans are better for it,” she said, drawing applause from Republican lawmakers.

Reynolds said she will continue to stand her ground, especially when it comes to policies related to children.

She said her first priority for this legislative session is creating universal state-funded scholarships that families could use to send their kids to private schools.

Her plan would start phasing in this year, and in the fall of 2025, all public and private school students would be eligible for an education savings account.

“Some families may want an education that conforms to their faith and moral convictions; some kids may have ambitions and abilities that require a unique educational setting; others may experience bullying or have special needs,” Reynolds said. “Regardless of the reason, every parent should have a choice of where to send their child, and that choice shouldn’t be limited to families who can afford it.”

Each state-funded account would get the same amount of money the state spends per student for public education. For the upcoming school year, that would be $7,598.

Reynolds’ staff estimates about 14,068 kids would get a scholarship next school year at a total cost of $106.9 million in state funding, and that would increase each year going forward.

Reynolds also called for letting public school districts redirect about $100 million in state funds that goes unused each year toward raising teacher salaries. She said she has directed the Iowa Department of Education to provide support to schools that consistently test in the bottom 5% of schools.

She then turned to the topic of abortion, and said setting up a child for a productive life begins before they are born.

“That’s why I’ve fought so hard in the courts to make sure that this legislative body can do what it so clearly has the power to do: protect the unborn,” Reynolds said.

She did not call for any new abortion restrictions in her speech as the constitutionality of the “fetal heartbeat” law is being considered by the Iowa Supreme Court.

But she asked lawmakers to quadruple the state funding being sent to anti-abortion pregnancy centers, and some of it would “promote paternal involvement and address the needs of fathers.” Reynolds also asked the Legislature to fund four obstetrics fellowships for primary care doctors.

Reynolds also addressed rising overdose deaths related to fentanyl. She called on lawmakers to double or triple the penalties for crimes involving fentanyl.

Finally, she laid out her plans for limiting the growth of state government.

“Like any large organization, government is marked by bureaucracy’s natural tendency to grow,” Reynolds said. “If that growth isn’t constantly checked and rechanneled toward its core function, it quickly takes on a life of its own.”

She wants to merge the 37 cabinet-level state agencies into a total of 16 agencies. Reynolds’ staff said a consultant identified up to $215 million in savings over four years by doing that and selling some farmland owned by the state. Her staff also said there would be no layoffs, but some vacant positions would be eliminated.

Reynolds did not propose any tax cuts, even as the top Republican lawmakers say reducing property taxes is a main priority. Senate Majority Leader Jack Whitver, R-Grimes, and House Speaker Pat Grassley, R-New Hartford, said they would still work on property tax policy.

Statehouse leaders react to Reynolds' education plan

Whitver said he is comfortable with Reynolds’ education plan, including the fact that state taxpayers could eventually be funding every private school student.

"The goal of the whole bill is to raise the entire education system, add competition," he said. "And whether it’s in rural or urban, we want to add more competition to bring everybody up.”

Whitver said the first public meeting on Reynolds’ education billwill be held this week or next week.

Grassley said Iowans deserve to see where their representatives stand on Reynolds’ bill after House Republicans failed to pass similar proposals the past two years.

“It does what I’ve said we’re trying to do, which is show support for private as well as public…So that’ll address some of the concerns that have existed," he said.

Grassley said a provision that would change how students are counted could mean some public school districts get new money as a result of the state paying for private school tuition.

House Minority Leader Jennifer Konfrst, D-Windsor Heights, said having no limits on who can qualify for an education savings account will make the plan less popular.

"Iowans didn’t like the plan when there were income limits on it," she said. "They’re certainly not going to like it when it means that a rich family in Des Moines can put their money in savings and take taxpayer dollars to their private school, while public schools across the state crumble.”

Senate Democratic Leader Zach Wahls said he thinks Reynolds’ new plan makes it clear she's being influenced by “out-of-state special interest groups.”

"Normal Iowans know that doesn’t make any sense. It’s not a common sense plan. It’s not good for Iowa kids.”

This post was updated Tuesday, Jan. 10, at 11:10 p.m.

Katarina Sostaric is IPR's State Government Reporter