By Ian Richardson and Stephen Gruber-Miller, Des Moines Register
Gov. Kim Reynolds’ proposal to use taxpayer funds for scholarships to help students attend private schools would increase options for low-income families who otherwise can’t afford it, school choice proponents said this week.
But public school advocates and Democrats said the proposal would take needed funding away from public schools and funnel it to institutions that aren’t subject to the same guidelines — which they said is at odds with Republicans’ push this year to increase transparency in schools.
The latest fight over Iowa’s education policy ramped up as parents, students, education advocates and school choice groups crowded Wednesday into a Senate meeting room for their first opportunity to weigh in on the proposal.
Reynolds’ wide-ranging bill would make a handful of changes to Iowa’s education law, including requiring school districts to post curriculum and a list of library materials online for parents to view and would fund scholarships for private school students who are on an individualized education program or whose families make below 400% of the federal poverty level — currently $111,000 for a family four.
“This bill is not about those of us who can already choose for our kids. This bill is about kids who don’t have any other opportunity,” said Sen. Amy Sinclair, R-Allerton, who chairs the Senate Education Committee.
Republicans said the plan will increase options for families and strengthen public schools through competition, while Democrats accused the majority party of shortchanging public education.
“This is a bad bill from A to Z,” said Sen. Claire Celsi, D-West Des Moines.
Senate Republicans advanced the bill through a subcommittee late Wednesday afternoon. Another Senate panel also advanced a separate “parents’ bill of rights” that also addresses school transparency. The latter passed on a bipartisan vote.
The two bills signal how the GOP is making education, school choice and transparency major issues in 2022, even after Reynolds’ first proposal on private school scholarships failed to pass the Iowa House last year.
“Informed parents make informed choices,” Reynolds told reporters Wednesday as she discussed her latest bill. “It’s not a zero-sum game.”
Meanwhile, House and Senate Republicans have begun work on their yearly school funding plans and are proposing to increase state aid to schools by either 2.25% or 2.5%. That increase is half of what Democrats, who are in the minority in both chambers, have proposed.
Opponents say school choice bill is problematic. Some proponents want it to be bigger.
Reynolds reintroduced her private school scholarship bill this year with a few tweaks aimed at addressing some of the concerns over who qualifies and its effect on school districts. The bill would limit the number scholarships to 10,000 per year.
Other sections of the bill are new, such as a section that adds transparency measures around book titles and curriculums. The addition is a result of Republicans taking issue with the content of certain library books that parents have been challenging across the state and country.
The bill would also require students to pass a U.S. citizenship test as a requirement for high school graduation and change a handful of other rules on licensure and school enrollment.
While the bill includes other measures, the scholarships were the most applauded and criticized portion on Wednesday.
Pro-school choice groups and some students who attend private Christian high schools attended to share support from the bill, with students sharing how they have benefited from their ability to have an education and that the opportunity should be expanded.
A few parents of homeschooled children also spoke in favor of the idea but said they want to see the option expanded to people like them, not just those who are switching over from public schools.
“Many are in a lower tax bracket because, like my family, we have to survive on one income,” said Pam Molde, of Pella, who homeschools her children. “We struggle each month to pay the bills.”
But several education advocates said Iowa already has significant school options in place, and they are concerned about using public funding to support private school.
Reynolds’ bill would use a portion of the state funding that public schools receive on a per-student basis to pay for the scholarship, meaning the state aid that a district had previously received for a student who qualifies wouldn’t be available when the student leaves.
A portion of the funding, however, would go toward supporting school districts with enrollments under 500. It’s meant to help soften the effects of students transferring out of rural schools, but not all rural school administrators are on board, said Dave Daughton, a lobbyist with Rural School Advocates of Iowa.
“When I talk to the small schools, they say, ‘I’m not sure I want to take money from other public schools,'” said Daughton, whose group opposes the bill.
Other aspects of the proposal also drew concern Wednesday. Education groups said they support transparency but that some of the specific requirements to post materials could be difficult for schools to manage in practice.
Others said they are worried about removing the requirement that teacher-librarians in K-12 schools have a master’s degree. Some were also concerned about making passing the citizenship test a requirement for graduation, especially for some students who don’t perform well on standardized tests.
‘Parents’ bill of rights’ finds bipartisan support
The Senate has also advanced a separate bill that specifies parents have certain rights for their children, outlining their right to know the curriculum their children are being taught, the right to review certain school records and banning schools from requiring any activities involving certain explicit material without parental consent.
Sinclair, who sponsored the bill, said it primarily outlines existing regulations and practices that school districts are already required to do.
“What we want to do is to bring it all together into one place to talk about the fact that parents are ultimately those who are in the driver’s seat of the child’s own education,” she said Wednesday.
The bill, Senate Study Bill 3079, passed through a subcommittee on Wednesday and the full Senate Education Committee on Thursday with unanimous support. Sen. Herman Quirmbach, D-Ames, agreed the proposal largely matched existing law and practice and said he supported transparency.
As work on school aid begins, Democrats pitch $300 million for public education
Republicans this week also began moving their plans to boost school funding next budget year. Senate Republicans advanced a plan to boost school funding next budget year by 2.25%. The Senate proposal is lower than Gov. Kim Reynolds’ proposal of 2.5%, and House Republicans have introduced their own bill that would match Reynolds 2.5% proposal.
House and Senate Democrats say the amount is too low and have separately proposed a 5% school aid increase this year. They say that while Reynolds has proposed cutting corporate tax rates by $300 million over five years, that money should instead be invested in public schools.
“If Gov. Reynolds has $300 million to put toward another corporate tax cut, then there is room in our budget to invest $300 million in Iowa’s kids,” said House Minority Leader Jennifer Konfrst, D-Windsor Heights.
Senate Minority Leader Zach Wahls, D-Coralville, said Republican attacks on teachers are driving educators to leave the state and resulting in larger class sizes.
“We believe that public education makes Iowa great, but Republicans want to give up on Iowa public schools, and we believe that we can’t afford that,” he said. “Whether it’s underinvesting in Iowa schools, or proposing to privatize Iowa’s public education system by using public money for private schools, Republicans do not value public education in our state.”
Reynolds pushed back on criticisms that Republicans are underfunding schools during a news conference Wednesday, saying she believes Iowa is providing significant funding and increasing it each year. She said schools also have federal funding they are able to use, and the state is working with schools in other ways.
The Senate’s state aid proposal passed the Senate Education Committee on Thursday, with Democrats voting against it.
Ian Richardson covers the Iowa Statehouse for the Des Moines Register. Reach him at [email protected], at 515-284-8254, or on Twitter at @DMRIanR.
Stephen Gruber-Miller covers the Iowa Statehouse and politics for the Register. He can be reached by email at [email protected] or by phone at 515-284-8169. Follow him on Twitter at @sgrubermiller.