Lawmakers and advocates are preparing for a renewed push for private school vouchers

Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds delivers her state condition speech Jan. 11 before a joint session of the Iowa Legislature at the Statehouse in Des Moines. She will set out her legislative priorities in a similar address in January. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

DES MOINES – Legislation requiring taxpayers to help fund private school scholarships is likely to make a comeback in Iowa’s next legislative session, and proponents say they hope the proposal, which failed to pass earlier this year, will now is expanded.

Senate Republicans passed legislation that would have provided up to 10,000 scholarships for students to attend private or charter schools. The scholarships would have been available to families living up to 400 percent of the federal poverty line and to students on an individual education program, generally students with disabilities or special needs.

The non-partisan Legislative Services Agency estimates that about $55 million would have been diverted from public schools under the proposal to fund these scholarships.

Supporters of the policy say it will give parents more choices about their children’s education and would help students who are failing in public schools. Opponents argue it will hurt public schools; that keeping taxpayers’ money in public schools helps the greatest number of children.

The measure failed to pass the Iowa House, where about a dozen Republicans unsupported it, many in rural counties concerned about the policy’s impact on schools in their areas. Democrats in both chambers rejected the measure.

The bill was one of Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds’ key policy proposals during the last session, and she campaigned this year to reintroduce a similar measure at the next session.

A spokeswoman for Reynolds said she will lay out her legislative priorities in her annual post-legislative state condition speech and “never give up on providing children with the best learning environment they deserve.”

The legislative period begins on January 9th.

legislative landscape

House Republicans will set up a new education reform committee in the upcoming session that will deal with “bills of significant reforms to our education system,” according to a press release. Republican House Speaker Pat Grassley of New Hartford, who will chair the committee, did not say if he would consider a private school scholarship bill.

“The House Republican caucus plans to consider a wide range of education reforms in this session,” he said in a statement. “This new committee will allow these important issues to be brought before the entire faction for the in-depth discussions they deserve.”

Both chambers also passed education “transparency” legislation during this year’s session, which would require schools to post course materials and lesson plans online. However, legislation stalled due to disagreements over the proposal for private school scholarships, often referred to as vouchers.

In the Senate, where the proposal has spent the past two years with less controversy among Republicans, Majority Leader Jack Whitver said it’s too early to know exactly what will be in a Senate bill addressing support for private schools .

“I expect to discuss policies similar to the bills Senate Republicans passed in the 2021 and 2022 sessions that will allow parents to use scholarships to send their children to schools that meet their needs on the 2021 best,” he said in a statement.

Democrats are expected to resist these measures when they come up in the next session.

“Iowans don’t care if a new committee is created in the Iowa legislature to look at the governor’s coupon plan or other bad ideas like jailing teachers and banning books because it’s just politics,” she said House Minority Leader Jennifer Konfrst of Windsor Heights in a statement. “House Democrats stand with the Iowans and will oppose any law that shifts money from public schools to private schools. It is time to put people before politics.”

Proponents push for expansion

Supporters of the policy said their “gold standard” is a system whereby each family can use the government funds that would go to a child’s public school for private tuition or home schooling, rather than a limited number proposed at the last meeting .

While Iowa Republicans may not go that far this year, proponents said they expect a proposal that expands on what Senate Republicans passed earlier this year.

“If I was guessing and I didn’t see a bill … it would be more than 10,000,” said Chuck Hurley, vice president and chief counsel for conservative Christian organization The Family Leader. “That would be quite extensive. Because I think the governor is really on a mission to try and help more parents.”

Trish Wilger, executive director of the Iowa Advocates for Choice in Education, said the formation of the House Education Reform Committee is a sign that House Republicans are making progress.

“We’re not sure about the intent of this committee or how education and education reform will work together, but we’re optimistic it means the House takes education issues, including school choice, very seriously,” she said.

But not everyone expects the measure to be expanded. Margaret Buckton, a lobbyist for the Rural Education Advocates of Iowa and the Urban Education Network, both of whom opposed the grant bill, said she would be surprised to see a proposal larger than what the Senate has already passed.

Mike Beranek, executive director of the Iowa State Education Association — the union that represents teachers and educators in Iowa — declined a request for an interview because no specific legislation was proposed. However, in an emailed statement, he said the ISEA would remain opposed to diverting public school funds to private schools.

“Iowa public schools continue to heroically serve their communities, students and families, and public funds must go to public education,” he said. “Spending important tax dollars on private school credits when our public schools need resources to meet the needs of the nearly half a million students who attend them is detrimental to Iowans in every community across the state.”

Opponents of the idea say public opinion is on their side. In an exit poll conducted by Public Policy Polling for liberal advocacy group Progress Iowa, 54 percent of respondents who voted in the November midterm elections said they believed public taxpayer money should go only to public schools, while 39 percent said some students should be able to use the dollars for non-public schools.

Counting the votes

With a new class of Republicans entering the legislature, it remains to be seen whether there will be enough support in the next session of the House of Representatives. Reynolds threw her support behind challengers from nine House Republicans who did not support the measure in this year’s primary. Several of these Republican incumbents lost in the primary to gubernatorial-backed rivals.

Notably, MP Dustin Hite, R-New Sharon, who chaired the Education Committee and opposed the measure, lost his reelection bid to main challenger Helena Hayes.

“There have been some changes in who sits in the Republican majority. Republicans also have a larger majority,” Wilger said. “And we think school choice supporters are among those new faces in the house. So we are optimistic.”

On the other hand, Buckton said her optimistic opponents could persuade lawmakers of the detrimental impact she felt supporting private schools would have on Iowa public schools.

“If you actually look at the guidelines and hear from voters what they think about it, I don’t think it’s going to be a done deal at all,” she said. “I think there will be a lot of good conversations.”