The Iowa Legislature, advocacy groups prepare for another private school scholarship push

Legislation dealing with taxpayer-funded private school grants is likely to make a comeback in the next Iowa legislature.

Proponents of the policy hope to see an expanded version of what passed during this year’s Iowa Senate session. 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 making up 400% 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 around $55 million would have been diverted from public schools under the proposal to fund these scholarships.

Supporters of the policy say it gives parents more choices about their children’s education and would help students who are failing in public schools, while opponents argue it would hurt public schools; Keeping taxpayers’ money in public schools would help the greatest number of children.

The measure didn’t pass the House of Representatives last term, where about a dozen Republicans didn’t support it, many in rural counties concerned about the policy’s impact on schools in their area. 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 9, 2023.

The Legislative Landscape

House Republicans will set up a new Education Reform Committee in the upcoming session that will consider “bills that make 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 that would require schools to post course materials and lesson plans online, but the legislation stalled over disagreements over the private school grant proposal.

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 testimony this week. “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 funds that would go to a child’s public school for private tuition or homeschooling, rather than a capped 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 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 will make progress on the issue.

“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 passed last session .

Mike Beranek, president 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% of respondents who voted in November said they think public taxpayer money should go only to public schools, while 39% said some students should be able to use the non-public school dollars.

Counting the votes

With a new class of Republican lawmakers emerging, it remains to be seen whether the House of Representatives will find enough support to pass the law. Reynolds tossed her support behind primary challengers to nine House Republicans who did not support the measure in this year’s primary, and several of those incumbents lost in the primary.

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.”