Lawmakers resume push for state-funded private school scholarships

Republicans tie private school grant proposal to parent choice controversies

By: - January 25, 2022 1:51 pm

Sen. Jim Carlin, left, led a subcommittee on nonpublic school savings accounts on Jan. 25, 2022. (Photo by Katie Akin / Iowa Capital Dispatch)

Iowa Republican lawmakers are taking another swing at providing more taxpayer money to help parents send their children to private schools.

Under Senate File 128, the families of nonpublic school students would be able to apply for an “education savings grant,” which would be 50% of what the state allocates to each public school pupil. The Legislature determines that number every year when deciding public school funding – this year, the governor proposed a per-pupil allocation of $7,553.

“It fosters competition, it gives parents a choice for children who are enrolled in underfunded schools,” said Sen. Jim Carlin, author of the bill and leader of a Tuesday subcommittee.

Carlin and Sen. Brad Zaun tied the proposal to ongoing concerns about parent choice in education – lingering anger over mask mandates and controversial books in school libraries. Carlin brought up the issue of transgender children, arguing “some parents don’t want their little girls sharing restrooms with boys.”

“Those are legitimate concerns, rooted in safety and privacy,” Carlin, R-Sioux City, said.

Proponents of the bill argued private schools create healthy competition among all schools, and that private schools often yielded better test scores. Carlin  pointed to lower test scores among minority students in Iowa, suggesting more access to nonpublic schools may help. 

“We have to get outside the box, look at other options… Studies have shown that this type of option does indeed foster competition that raises the bar, and that’s always going to be our goal,” Carlin said.

Opponents to the proposal said public funds would be better spent improving public schools. Phil Jeneary, lobbyist for the Iowa Association of School Boards, said the bill could lead to a larger voucher program in the state.

“This really is a slippery slope to a more expansive program,” Jeneary said. “We’ve seen these in other states … that gradually grows and grows and grows and expands, further eroding public education.”

Sen. Claire Celsi opposed the bill. “We’re underfunding our public schools, so I don’t think this will help,” Celsi, D-West Des Moines, said.

Gov. Kim Reynolds has proposed her own version of private school scholarships, although lawmakers have not yet held a meeting on it. She suggested 70% of the state per-pupil allocation would follow the student to their private school, and the other 30% would be reallocated to small, rural districts. 

Carlin noted his proposal would apply to families who have already been enrolled in private schools, whereas Reynolds focuses on families who are switching from public to private. Iowa’s nonpublic certified enrollment for the current school year is 33,597 students, according to the Iowa Department of Education.

The push for state-funded private school scholarships began last year. Reynolds emphasized parent choice in her 2021 Condition of the State address, asking lawmakers to give families more options “about which school to attend altogether.”

The Senate passed a large charter school bill soon after. Included in the legislation were state scholarships for students who wanted to leave underperforming school districts and attend a private school instead. Each student would have been eligible for about $5,200. 

The House did not take up the full legislation, instead passing a standalone bill on charter school creation. House Republicans did not take up legislation to create private school scholarships during last session.

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Katie Akin
Katie Akin

Katie Akin is a former Iowa Capital Dispatch reporter. Katie began her career as an intern at PolitiFact, debunking viral fake news and fact-checking state and national politicians. She moved to Iowa in 2019 for a politics internship at the Des Moines Register, where she assisted with Iowa Caucus coverage, multimedia projects and the Register’s Iowa Poll. She became the Register’s retail reporter in early 2020, chronicling the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on Central Iowa’s restaurants and retailers.