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Reynolds school choice bill takes first step forward in Iowa Senate

Dan Zylstra, head of schools at Pella Christian, testifies in support of Gov. Kim Reynolds’ school choice bill.
Grant Gerlock
Dan Zylstra, head of schools at Pella Christian, testifies in support of Gov. Kim Reynolds’ school choice bill.

The subcommittee was the public’s first chance to comment on Gov. Kim Reynolds’ plan to create state-funded accounts that families could use to pay for private school.

An Iowa Senate panel moved quickly Thursday on Gov. Kim Reynolds’ signature school choice bill, advancing it out of subcommittee just two days after she first detailed the plan in her Condition of the State address.

The proposal (SSB 1022) would create taxpayer-funded Educational Savings Accounts — valued at $7,598 in the first year — that families could spend on private school tuition among other education-related expenses.

In the third year of the program, the voucher-style accounts would become universally available to any K-12 student in the state. That would include those already enrolled in private or religious schools, where enrollment reached 33,280 in 2022.

Thursday’s subcommittee was the first chance for the public to weigh in on the plan directly to lawmakers.

Opponents said Reynolds’ legislation favors the choice of private schools more than parents because they can be selective about which students they accept or turn away.

Justin Hollinrake graduated from a public high school in Ankeny. He told lawmakers he’s against the plan because he fears it will weaken the school system where his relatives live in rural Iowa.

“With how many schools have shut down, with how much rural consolidation there has been, ten years from now is public school even going to be an option?” Hollinrake said. “Will public schools even be open? Will private school be the only option?”

The governor’s office estimates around 40,000 students would be part of the program by the third year. Once ESAs are fully phased in the full cost would reach $341 million.

Sen. Herman Quirmbach, D-Ames, questioned Republicans' willingness to approve that level of new spending for ESAs when they have held recent funding increases for public schools below the rising cost of inflation.

“We’ve got to get our priorities right,” Quirmbach said. “The public sector is responsible for the public schools and we’re not doing our duty.”

Sen. Herman Quirmbach, D-Ames, speaks against Gov. Kim Reynolds school choice bill flanked by fellow lawmakers in a crowded hearing room.
Grant Gerlock
Sen. Herman Quirmbach, D-Ames, speaks against Gov. Kim Reynolds school choice bill flanked by fellow lawmakers in a crowded hearing room.

Senate Education Committee Chair Ken Rozenboom, R-Oskaloosa, said lawmakers would not reduce the level of funding for public schools in order to provide state funding to private schools.

“The arguments aren’t new. The lines have been drawn,” Rozenboom said. “We in the legislature have always supported our public schools and we will continue to do so.”

While the legislature would appropriate $106.9 million in new funding to cover the cost of ESAs in the first year, the program would be funded after that through a mix of new appropriations and funding redirected from public districts to account for students who leave to enroll in private schools.

The bill includes other provisions aimed at lessening the impact on public schools. One is a measure that would send around $1,205 back to a local public school for every student in their footprint who receives an Education Savings Account, even if they never went to the public school. Another would allow them to use unspent money from funds earmarked for staff and teacher development to supplement teacher salaries.

Several commenters who testified in support of the bill told lawmakers that a religious education is a priority for their families and that, as taxpayers, they feel they should also receive state funding.

Arlene McClintock said she backs the bill because, growing up, the cost of private school was out of reach. She said she and her siblings were bullied in their public school for speaking Spanish as first-generation Mexican Americans.

“One of the things that parents want to be able to provide for their kids is a safe learning environment,” said McClintock, director of a group that promotes school choice for Latino families. “That’s something that I wish that I had had growing up and it’s something that I want to provide for my children as well.”

Under the plan, families that receive ESAs must use the money to pay private school tuition and fees first, before other expenses, and cannot use it to pay for transportation costs, food, clothing or school supplies like pencils and notebooks.

Children that receive ESAs would have to take academic proficiency tests required for public school students under state and federal education laws.

The next chance for the public to weigh in is next Tuesday at 5 p.m. at a hearing being held by the House Education Reform Committee at the Capitol.

Grant Gerlock is a reporter covering Des Moines and central Iowa