Members of the Senate Education Committee recommended passage of the governor’s private school scholarship plan on Jan. 18, 2023. (Photo by Robin Opsahl/Iowa Capital Dispatch)
Committees in both chambers of the Iowa Legislature voted Wednesday to recommend passage of Gov. Kim Reynolds’ private school scholarship legislation, gearing up for floor debates on the governor’s top legislative priority within the first few weeks of the 2023 session.
The Senate Education Committee approved the governor’s proposal establishing an education savings account (ESA) program, which would provide public funds for Iowa families to put toward private school tuition and associated costs. The Republican-proposed bill, Senate File 94, advanced along party lines.
Despite the legislation’s fast travel through subcommittees and committees, Republican legislative leaders have not set a date for when it will be discussed on the House and Senate floors.
Senate Democrats called for Republicans to slow down so that the Legislative Services Agency and other state departments could publish fiscal data and compile more information on the bill’s potential impact.
But Senate President Amy Sinclair told the committee this year’s program is the culmination of years of work on expanding “parental choice” in Iowa. She served as the Senate Education Committee chair from 2016 to 2022, and said the committee has had these conversations before.
“For six years, I’ve been singing the same song,” Sinclair, R-Allerton, said. “We have not rushed anything. You had six years of conversation with us, about us wanting to empower parents. About us wanting to get opportunities to all children. Six years. I would suggest that maybe it’s long overdue.”
Iowa lawmakers debated, and ultimately did not pass ESA proposals during the past two legislative sessions. But this year’s proposal has some key differences from those introduced in 2020 and 2021, including having family income requirements only for the first two years of the program, and expanding eligibility to all public school students, not just those designated as needing significant improvement by the Iowa Department of Education.
Democratic Sen. Sarah Trone Garriott, D-Windsor Heights, said the state needs to calculate the plan’s fiscal impact and determine how to hold non-public schools to public-school educational standards before proceeding with the program.
Trone Garriott said the lack of guardrails on how ESA money is spent could be exploited. She suggested families could use those funds to hire a private tennis coach, or to make their own educational company and pay themselves for keeping children home.
“There are a lot of out-of-state venture capitalists investing hundreds of thousands of dollars when it comes to ad campaigns showing a lot of interest (in ESAs) because they know there is an opportunity to profit here,” Trone Garriott said.
The legislation stipulates ESA funds can only be spent on accredited educational programs. Sinclair disputed claims that the funds could be used fraudulently by parents or private schools. The Iowa Department of Education reviews the curriculum, teacher licensure, safety processes and protocols for accredited private schools just as it does for public schools, she said.
The department also reviews what the ESA funds can be used on — tuition, textbooks, educational therapy — and would not approve the improper spending that Democrats claimed.
“Do we not trust our Department of Education to identify the approved expenditures and only last allow for expenses that are under that approved expenditure list?” Sinclair said.
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The House Education Reform Committee also discussed the program Wednesday after holding a public hearing Tuesday evening. The panel opened a subcommittee of the whole to hear from advocates speaking for and against the ESA proposal, before the full committee approved House Study Bill 1 along party lines.
Democrats and public education advocates criticized the program for diverting funding that would otherwise be invested in public schools. The governor’s office estimated the ESA program would cost $918 million for the first four years of implementation. But in the Education Reform meeting, House Speaker Pat Grassley said advocates who are only speaking about that figure are misrepresenting education funding: Iowa’s public education spending is estimated at $15.2 billion over that same time period.
The governor’s proposal accounts for expected spending growth, the impact of last year’s tax cuts and having “cushion room” in the state’s general fund and Taxpayer Relief Fund, Grassley said.
“When it comes to House Republicans, we run what I would call here a ‘stress test’ using numbers that even probably skew — the way we’ve always budgeted — to the high side,” Grassley said. “And we still are in a position where not only do we have an ending balance, but (we have) the Taxpayer Relief Fund which existed for tax relief.”
Reynolds praised Republican lawmakers’ swift action on the legislation, which she outlined as the top priority in her Condition of the State speech. The governor said she looked forward to the floor debate on the bill, saying “Iowans deserve to see where their elected leaders stand.”
“This is just the first step in giving educational freedom to Iowa’s students and parents,” Reynolds said in a statement. “For too long government has told parents when, how, and where their kids can receive an education. It’s time for the government to get out of the way and allow parents the freedom of choice in education.”
The Senate Appropriations Committee will discuss the bill Thursday during a 10 a.m. meeting, which will be livestreamed. Members of the public who wish to comment must attend the meeting in person.
Policy bills that contain spending plans or tax changes are normally required to move through the panels in charge of appropriations or taxes. House Republicans plan to skip that step. They have moved a resolution from the Administration and Rules Committee allowing Education Reform Committee bills to reach the House floor without going through the Appropriations or Ways and Means committee.
The bill was placed on the House calendar Wednesday, and will be eligible for debate Monday at the earliest.
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