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School choice bill moves quickly toward a vote in the Iowa House and Senate

House Speaker Pat Grassley, R-New Hartford, listens to testimony at a public hearing for Gov. Kim Reynolds' school choice proposal.
Madeleine C King
House Speaker Pat Grassley, R-New Hartford, listens to testimony at a public hearing for Gov. Kim Reynolds' school choice proposal.

Republican lawmakers continued fast action on Gov. Kim Reynolds’ voucher-style school choice plan Wednesday, passing it through key committees in the Iowa House and Senate.

Gov. Kim Reynold’s signature education bill took a leap forward Wednesday when it was advanced by committees in both the House and Senate.

The proposal would make Iowa one of the first states in the nation to offer universal Educational Savings Accounts that could be spent on private school tuition. The voucher-style scholarships would be worth $7,598 per student in the first year.

Democrats in the Senate Education Committee said the process should be slowed down to allow for a nonpartisan fiscal analysis of the proposal.

Senate President Amy Sinclair, R-Allerton, said she’d also like to see another cost analysis, but she disputed the idea that the bill is being rushed.

“You’ve had six years of conversation with us, about us wanting to empower parents, about us wanting to give opportunities to all children,” Sinclair said, referencing the time since Republicans took majority control in the legislature. “Six years. I would suggest that maybe it’s long overdue.”

The money in an ESA could be spent on education expenses such as tutoring and books, or to pay for advanced placement exams - but it would have to be used to pay tuition and fees first.

Sen. Amy Sinclair, R-Allerton, speaks at a Senate Education Committee meeting.
Grant Gerlock
Sen. Amy Sinclair, R-Allerton, said Gov. Kim Reynolds' school choice bill makes schools more accountable to Iowa families. "Who are we ultimately accountable to when we are educating children? The parents."

In the first two years of the program, there would be income limits on any private school student not in kindergarten who applies for a tax-funded account.

By the third year, however, ESAs would be available to all students regardless of their income, including those already attending private K-12 schools. Sen. Claire Celsi, D-West Des Moines, called that an “embarrassing waste of taxpayer dollars for a very small portion of our population.”

“Our job as legislators is to fund public schools and to make sure every student in our state has a fair chance to attend their local district and get a good, free, equitable public education,” Celsi said.

Sinclair argued that ESAs will make education more equitable by making private school more affordable for kids from low-income families “who are often minorities, when we’re talking about equity. Kids with single moms and single dads.”

“Yes, because it’s universal, it does impact folks that are of more means,” Sinclair said. “But I’ve long known our public schools to educate rich kids and nobody argues with that.”

The committee advanced the bill on a party line vote of 11-5.

House committee advances education reform

The House Education Reform Committee was specially formed to consider major changes to the state’s K-12 school system and made quick work of the governor’s ESA proposal Wednesday, advancing it 3-2 on party lines.

Rep. John Wills, R-Spirit Lake, said ESAs put families in charge of finding the school that best fits their child.

“That’s what this bill is about, freedom for that family,” Wills said. “Freedom for that family to make a decision about where that child is taught versus which ZIP code that child is taught in. Freedom for that family to decide these are the values that we want our child to be taught versus this public education that doesn’t really teach the values that we’d like to see.”

House Democrats criticized the program’s fiscal impact. The only cost estimates so far have come from the governor’s office. According to those figures, the full annual cost would grow to $341 million per year when it is fully implemented to provide ESAs to an estimated 40,000 private school students.

Speaker Pat Grassley claimed that projections developed from conversations with the Department of Management show ESAs will fit the state budget, even as historic tax cuts including a flat 3.9 percent personal income tax are phased in.

“We’ve left ourself a cushion on both sides, not only in the ending balance but as well to make sure the tax cut is sustainable,” Grassley said.

Minority Leader Jennifer Konfrst, D-Windsor Heights, asked whether the bill adds any requirements for private schools to provide IEPs, or individualized education plans for students in special education.

Rep. John Wills, R-Spirit Lake, speaks at a House Education Reform Committee meeting.
Grant Gerlock
Rep. John Wills, R-Spirit Lake, said Gov. Reynolds' bill creating Education Savings Accounts provides "school autonomy for the private schools, that they will be able to function as they always have and as their business model allows."

Wills replied that IEPs are not mentioned in the bill.

“I wanted to confirm that a private school can turn away kids for any reason that they want, correct?” Konfrst asked.

“It’s a private business,” Wills replied.

“No requirement for our part as taxpayers on what they’re going to do and who they’re going to accept?” she asked.

“No,” he said.

The bill does not put any caps on the number of students in the program or restrictions on tuition increases at private schools. The text of the bill states that the legislature shall not “require a nonpublic school to modify its academic standards for admission or educational program” in order to participate in the ESA program.

Konfrst said after the committee meeting that the governor’s bill does not really give parents school choice if a private school has the power to choose its students.

“A principal of a school can say which kid comes in and which kid doesn’t each and every time,” Konfrst said. “And so we’re definitely dividing our students into those that private schools want and those that cannot get in because a private school denies them.”

Before the bill can reach the Senate floor for debate, it must pass through the Appropriations Committee which placed it on a meeting agenda for Thursday morning.

In the House, a proposed rule change would allow the bill to come to the floor without advancing through budget committees.

Speakers line up for and against

The committee actions followed a public hearing Tuesday night held by the House Education Reform Committee at the Iowa Capitol. Supporters and opponents of the school choice plan lined up to speak, overflowing into the rotunda.

Supporters told committee members that, as taxpayers, the state should support their children the same as students in public schools. Marissa Grimes said she has three kids that go to St. Joseph Catholic School in Des Moines. She said more families would like to send their children to private schools but can’t afford it.

“With school choice, all the students win,” Grimes said. “They win because the few percent that need this option will have the opportunity that families who are already satisfied with their child’s education have.”

Opponents of the plan pointed out that the bill would eventually provide the same amount of state funding to low-income and wealthy families alike.

Jazlyn Fitz testifies against a school choice proposal in the Iowa legislature at a public hearing held at the State Capitol.
Madeleine C King
Jazlyn Fitz, whose son receives support for autism and ADHD in his public school in Des Moines, says she opposes the bill because even if she could pay, a private school may turn her away.

Other proponents said they would like to use the money to choose a school that matches their religious faith or their conservative values.

Imelda Vargas said her three daughters would not be able to attend a Christian school without financial assistance. Many private schools offer scholarships supported by a tax credit that encourages donations to school tuition organizations.

Vargas recalled when her oldest daughter first started going to the school.

“From the beginning we fell in love with the school and how she learned about God in every part of the day,” Vargas said. “She came home happy always telling us stories about what she learned about God. We knew from that moment that we belong in a Christian school.”

Jazlyn Fitz said she opposes the bill because, even if she could pay, a private school may turn her away.

Fitz said her son receives academic and behavioral support for autism and ADHD in his public school in Des Moines, but disability laws do not apply equally to private schools.

Joe Stutler testifies at a public hearing held at the Iowa State Capitol.
Madeleine C King
Joe Stutler says he's in support of the bill because it will help him open his own "Little Devils' Academy" funded by the state.

“My son and others like him will have no choice to attend a private school because private schools can and will choose not to accept him and his specialized needs,” Fitz said. “In my mind, vouchers are discriminatory toward disabled children because there is no guarantee or mandate that they will be accepted and properly supported in private schools.”

David Dubczak told the committee that if the state spends more on K-12 education, it should go toward improving public schools, not subsidizing private competition.

“It is this state government’s responsibility to ensure every school has everything it needs to educate every child,” said Dubczak, a 12-year teacher who currently works in Ames. “That is your job, not designing a system by which you can abdicate that responsibility and then allow a select few a way out.”

Joe Stutler of Marion satirized the bill’s support for religious schools, saying he’d like to open a K-12 school called “Little Devils Academy.”

“I'm already in discussions with The Satanic Temple,” Stutler said. “They're very interested in this bill and in our curriculum. You know, you’ve got to give the devil his due and you’ve got to give him your tax dollars, too. So as long as you're handing out money, thank you sir, I want a piece of that, too.”

Grant Gerlock is a reporter covering Des Moines and central Iowa