Gov. Kim Reynolds said her private school scholarship plan would help families who “feel trapped” at public schools. (Photo by Katie Akin/Iowa Capital Dispatch)
Gov. Kim Reynolds put her weight into several Republican primaries for Iowa House seats, hoping to gain supporters for her education agenda. Her efforts paid off, and she made it clear Saturday the issue will be central to her campaign.
“Ultimately, we’re going to make sure that every parent has a choice in their child’s education,” Reynolds told the Iowa GOP State Convention Saturday, receiving a standing ovation. “There’s so much on the line this November, and we need all hands on deck to get that message out.”
Reynolds is running against Democrat Deidre DeJear for governor in the general election. Neither candidate faced primary opponents.
Reynolds said in a WHO Radio interview she hears “gut-wrenching” stories from parents about what their children go through in school.
“I’ve been very clear that it’s critical we have a strong public school system,” she said. “… But parents deserve the choice of what environment is best suited for their children to thrive.”
All but one of the candidates Reynolds endorsed won with her support and the financial backing of conservative interest groups. Some first-time runners ousted incumbent Republicans, and experienced legislators won against their former Statehouse colleagues.
If these Republican candidates win in the general election, Reynolds may finally get to move forward with her school choice agenda. And winning in November is not an issue for all candidates: Some don’t have opponents in the general election or are competing in historically red areas.
Reynolds’ picks dominate GOP primaries
Six incumbents lost Tuesday night: Reps. Dennis Bush, Lee Hein, Dustin Hite, David Maxwell, Joe Mitchell and Jon Thorup. In all but one race, Reynolds endorsed their opponent.
The governor endorsed candidates she said supported a “pro-family and pro-parent” agenda: Specifically, she backed those who supported her legislation to offer Iowa students taxpayer-funded scholarships to attend private schools. The legislation stalled in the Iowa House in May.
“Obviously we want to continue to work with the governor to get something achieved,” House Speaker Pat Grassley, R-New Hartford, said while talking with reporters about the scholarship bill. “That’s been a big priority of hers moving toward next session, and we’ll work on that in the off season.”
The governor’s education agenda does not stop at private school scholarships. Republicans have also worked on legislation that would create more ways to start charter schools in Iowa, and were able to pass measures such as stopping schools from mandating masks and requiring transgender students to use bathrooms in accordance with their legal gender designation.
Many of the incumbent candidates targeted in the primary said the measures are unpopular with voters in their districts.
Rep. Dustin Hite, R-New Sharon, did not support the scholarship bill, but supported other school choice measures during his time as chair of the House Education Committee. On Tuesday, he lost to Helena Hayes – who the governor endorsed the day before the election.
Hite talked in a debate about the concerns constituents have brought up about the bill: What influence the government could have over private schools with this program, what it means for areas like Keokuk County that don’t have any private schools.
“I think there’s ways we can get there that don’t have those same downsides, and that’s why I’ve supported the things I have done that have expanded school choice,” he said.
Hayes received 1,961 votes in the primary election, while Hite received 1,453.
“The results of the Iowa primary election affirm what Governor Reynolds and the Iowa school choice coalition already knew – the people of Iowa want school choice,” members of the Iowa School Choice Coalition said in a news release responding to the primary results.
What does this mean for the general election?
Hite’s argument against private school scholarships was echoed by other candidates, like Rep. Jon Thorup, R-Knoxville, who represent rural areas. Thorup said the bill would not help families in his district.
“If it does pass, if it’s not changed … I think it’s going to eventually cause the closing and merg(ing) of some of the smaller school districts, specifically the ones I represent,” Thorup said.
Redistricting changed the party balance of many Iowa House districts, including the ones where representatives said their voters were against private school scholarships.
District 37, where Republican Barb Kniff McCulla defeated Thorup, largely comprises areas previously covered by District 28. The district added a segment of Mahaska County and lost part of Lucas, but retains most of Marion and a segment of Jasper County.
Kniff McCulla faces Democrat Mike Overman in the general election. The area has voted solidly conservative for the past decade. Thorup ran unopposed in 2020, he won his 2018 election by 64.1%. Thorup’s predecessor, Greg Heartsill, defeated Democratic challengers by more than 10% in each election since his first run in 2012.
In a KNIA interview, Kniff McCulla said she hopes to talk with voters who don’t support Reynolds’ legislation about the “potential” it has to improve all Iowa schools.
“I think more clarity and more information needs to be given so they truly understand how this can be good for all children,” she said.
In other races where an incumbent lost, the only election to win was the primary. Winning Republican nominees Zach Dieken in District 5 and Rep. Steven Bradley in District 66 don’t have opponents in the general election.
Primary results showed support for Reynolds’ school choice policies, but critics say that Iowans are still against the legislation.
“We do not believe Republican primary turnout, influenced by more than a quarter million dollars in campaign contributions from out-of-state, pro-voucher organizations demonstrates Iowans’ priorities,” Melissa Peterson, legislative and policy director of the Iowa State Education Association, said in a statement.
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