Senate panel advances private school scholarship bill

By: - January 12, 2023 6:20 pm

Speakers one up to speak for and against Gov. Kim Reynolds’ private school scholarship proposal which the Senate Education subcommittee discussed Thursday, Jan. 12. (Photo by Luke Clausen/Iowa Capital Dispatch)

Teachers, parents, students and lobbyists overflowed into the hallway Thursday at the State Capitol as senators advanced the governor’s private school scholarship proposal.

A Senate education subcommittee gave initial approval to Senate Study Bill 1022, a proposal from Gov. Kim Reynolds. It would establish an educational savings account (ESA) program providing government funds for Iowa families to send their children to private schools.

Some Iowa children and families lined up to speak in support and against the bill, in addition to dozens of speakers waiting for a turn to speak via Zoom.

Arlene McClintock, a first-generation immigrant from Mexico, said educational options growing up in a Latina family in rural Iowa were limited. Now that she and her husband are preparing for their first child, McClintock said she wanted to ensure her family and others will have more educational opportunities and resources than she had growing up — which includes options to attend private schools.

“The resounding theme that I’ve heard in speaking with Hispanic and Latino families in our state, is that they wish that there were other resources available to them as well,” she said.

“Growing up in a rural town, my brothers and I faced a lot of adversity just because we were different,” she said. “And one of the things that parents want to be able to provide for their kids is safe learning environment. … So I’m in support of this bill, and just the opportunity that I provide for families to have the best options available.”

But Mary Coulter, a Colfax-Mingo School Board member, said even with this funding, private schools may remain inaccessible for many Iowans. She said three-quarters of Iowa’s school districts are in rural areas with little or no access to private school options.

Coulter also disagreed with the argument that all parents would have more choices if private schools were more affordable. Private schools can deny students, she said, and could deny LGBTQ students or those with special education needs.

“Vouchers don’t really offer parents choice, private schools make that choice,” she said. “Public schools take everyone. Private schools don’t have to educate students with behavioral issues or greater academic needs. How was this choice?”

Bill has failed in past years

It’s the third year Reynolds has introduced a private school scholarship bill. It failed in the House in previous years, with some Republicans saying the program would take away funding from rural public school districts.

This year, leaders in both the House and Senate said the latest proposal addresses concerns that legislators raised in previous years.

“We can do this in a way where we support our public and our private schools,” House Speaker Pat Grassley, R-New Hartford, said. “But more importantly, the conversation I think the governor is trying to steer around, is making sure it’s for the children and the families making these decisions.”

There are some major changes to the Reynolds’ proposed program from versions debated in previous years. The 2021 program would have only applied to students at public schools which were designated as needing “comprehensive support and improvement” by the Iowa Department of Education. The current legislation would provide scholarships for students at all Iowa public schools who move to private schools. Earlier versions also had family income limits to qualify for the scholarships.

All current K-12 public school students would qualify for scholarships of up to $7,598 under the current legislation if they move to private schools. Current private school students from grades 1-12 whose family income is 300% or below the federal poverty level in the first year and 400% in the second would qualify for scholarship funds. The plan would make the funds available to all students from the third year of implementation going forward.

Molly Severn, the governor’s legislative liaison, said the criticism that public funds shouldn’t go toward private schools is “short-sighted.”

“The state’s investment prioritizes students over systems, and it’s one that will pay off for Iowa’s future,” Severn said.

There’s another new funding component to the legislation: The public school district where a student receiving an ESA resides would still get some money. The legislation requires that public school districts receive categorical funds for all students who live within their district, including those who attend private schools. The governor’s office estimates that would provide public school districts with roughly $1,200 in categorical funds for every private school student who lives in the district area.

But public school advocates say calculating these student totals would be difficult. Melissa Peterson, legislative and policy director for the Iowa State Education Association, said the governor’s bill puts ESA-eligible students in three categories: kindergarten students, current public school students and current private school students within income thresholds. It’s unclear which of these groups will be used to calculate the categorical funds a public school district receives, she said, especially for students who have never been enrolled in Iowa’s public school system.

“It is very difficult for a public school to be able to rely upon any particular amount of general funding when it is calculated on some of those other unknown numbers,” Peterson said. “And that just lends itself to the unpredictable nature of the funding environment that public school districts have found themselves in under this administration.”

Sen. Ken Rozenboom, Education Committee chair, said he was in his seventh consecutive year on a “school choice” subcommittee, and that he’s heard the arguments many times before. He said it’s unfortunate that “lines have been drawn” for many people heading into this debate, but disagreed with characterizations that the bill was taking away funding from Iowa’s public education system.

“There is no diversion of money from public schools to private schools,” Rozenboom, R-Oskaloosa, said. “That is not true. No matter how many times it’s said, it’s not true. This is not a zero sum game.”

But Democratic Sen. Herman Quirmbach argued that the governor showed her priorities in allocating nearly $107 million to the ESA program, while only increasing public school funding $83 million. The current funding proposal is not enough to make up for inflation or underfunding of public schools from previous years, he said.

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

People held up signs and talked over speakers, occasionally disrupting the online portion of the meeting. But senators thanked the crowd for having a civil discussion. Sen. Brad Zaun, an Urbandale Republican, said he was happy to hear from such a broad range of Iowans — which included Iowans involved with both private and public schools.

“I’m glad there’s so many people here. I’m glad there’s so many people interested in our schools,” Zaun said. “I can tell you that people that are sending their kids to private school are taxpayers too. I think that’s forgotten a lot of times.”

Public hearing scheduled

The bill advanced to the full Senate Education Committee with the support of Republicans on the subcommittee. Meanwhile, the Iowa House is working on an identical bill.

The newly created Education Reform Committee will hold a public hearing on House Study Bill 1 at 5 p.m. on Tuesday, Jan. 17 in Room 103 at the Iowa Capitol. People wishing to speak at the meeting must attend in person and are required to sign up on the Iowa Legislature’s website. The meeting will also be livestreamed on YouTube, with a link posted an hour before the meeting’s start on www.legis.iowa.gov.

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Robin Opsahl
Robin Opsahl

Robin Opsahl is an Iowa Capital Dispatch reporter covering the state Legislature and politics. Robin has experience covering government, elections and more at media organizations including Roll Call, the Sacramento Bee and the Wausau Daily Herald, in addition to working on multimedia projects, newsletters and visualizations. They were a political reporter for the Des Moines Register covering the Iowa caucuses leading up to the 2020 presidential election, assisting with the Register's Iowa Poll, and reporting on Iowa's 4th District elections.

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