Local lawmakers and school leaders reacted to Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds' proposal to allot millions of public dollars to pay for private school education.
Some see it as an opportunity for students, while others are concerned about the cost and possible consequences for public schools.
In the governor's proposal, the state would allocate $7,598 — the same figure as Iowa's per-pupil public school funding — to families who set up an education savings account, which can be used for private school tuition, supplies or other expenses.
Reynolds and other Republican leaders aim to move swiftly on the bill — as the House Education Reform Committee has already scheduled a Jan. 17 public hearing, while Senate subcommittees considered the legislation just two days after the governor's address Tuesday.
Local lawmakers weigh in
Similar, though scaled back, school choice proposals stalled in the Iowa House in the prior two sessions, and a few key holdouts in the Republican caucus last year represent the Quad-Cities.
In particular, Bettendorf Republican Rep. Gary Mohr, who chairs the powerful budget-writing committee said he’s still reviewing Reynolds’ proposal, but is chiefly concerned about two things — maintaining private school independence and the cost of the program to taxpayers.
“Like everything else, the devil is in the details,” Mohr said. “…I don’t know if I can get there or not. It depends on changes and amendments — where we end up.”
Last year, Mohr opposed Reynolds’ proposal because it would give private school students part of the state’s per-pupil funds and give another portion to a rural school district, regardless of what district the student lived in. Reynolds’ 2023 proposal drops that provision.
On private schools’ independent governance, Mohr said: “I’m a big proponent of public education. I’m also a big supporter of private independent education. People go to them for different reasons. Once we start mixing tax dollars with both institutions, my concern is that years down the road, a future legislature will say any school district receiving tax dollars to support children’s tuition will need to adhere to the same rules and regulations as public schools – no prayer in schools, no religious training, adhere to a statewide curriculum.
As the appropriations chair, Mohr said he’ll look especially closely at how much the governor’s proposal is expected to cost.
Reynolds’ staff has said they expect the program to cost $107 million the first year, $156 million the second, and by year three $314 million.
In 2022, close to 33,700 students were enrolled in Iowa private schools.
As part of the bill, school districts would get $1,250 in funding from the state for each student that lives in the district, but attends a private school. Also, the proposal allows unspent funds in professional development programs to be used to bump up teacher salaries.
Rep. Norlin Mommsen, R-DeWitt, said the governor’s office reached out to him about his concerns about last year’s proposal. He said he was pleased to see the additional funding and flexibility for public schools, but would continue reviewing it before committing his support.
“This is much closer to leveling the playing field, and gives our public schools some flexibility,” Mommsen said. “It’s a start in the right direction.”
Freshman legislator Ken Croken, D-Davenport, said he was surprised at the speed Republicans are moving the proposal through the Legislature.
Democrats have been unanimously opposed to the proposal, calling Reynolds’ proposal private school vouchers. Croken criticized the proposal, emphasizing that private schools have less oversight over their admittance and employment practices and that taxpayer money can go toward families that can easily afford to pay for their children’s private education.
“The richest family in Iowa can claim a tuition credit of $7,500 to send their kid to private school, thereby siphoning the money that would then be available to the public schools.”
First-year lawmaker Scott Webster, R-Bettendorf, pointed to voters electing Republicans in a 2022 wave as a mandate for such a bill.
“I am going through the details, but I am supportive of Gov. Reynolds’ ideas to reform education in Iowa and ensure we are looking out for the students and encouraging their success,” Webster wrote in an email.
Local school leaders react
A chief concern of North Scott superintendent Joe Stutting is fast-tracking the bill, which he said would have major financial implications both school districts and the state.
"Last year, when they passed open-enrollment with no deadlines, I think there were a lot of ramifications they didn't foresee because it was passed in less than 24-hours and never really discussed," he said. "I would hate to see us repeat that."
Accountability with taxpayer money is another concern for Stutting, and he said he was surprised Reynolds didn't mention it in her address.
"For example: are private schools going to be required to accept all kids and give all kids due process if they want to kick them out, like we do in public education?" he said. "If a student starts with an ESA, goes to private school and then goes back to public school, how does that money get funneled back to the public school?"
"How do we afford it if we can't afford more than 2.5 percent (funding increase) in an 8 percent inflation time period — and a labor shortage — for public schools? If we can afford ESA's, why can't we afford to meet the needs of public education?"
In the private sector, Rivermont Collegiate headmaster Max Roach wonders if the bill would change the school's admissions requirements. He said learning more details of the bill would help him determine Rivermont's preparedness for a possible influx of former public school students.
"Right off the bat, 40 of our current families would benefit from this (bill), in addition to any new inquiries this generates," Roach said. "It would be easy to assume that we're just a fancy school for rich, 'genius' children, yet with the economic realities of our region, that's clearly not the case … we've got about 70 local families receiving financial aid."
Roach's primary concern was his school's independence of federal or state requirements, adding that teacher autonomy is a key component of Rivermont's education.
"There are a lot of things that we're not beholden to, and frankly I like it that way," he said. "For example, if I were going to have to start delivering IEPs (Individualized Education Programs) — as dictated by the state — we currently don't have the resources to do that. So a lot of these changes I'm eager to learn more about to see if we can make it work."
According to the proposal, families' unspent ESA funds in one year would roll into the following and would return to the state general fund upon a student graduating high school.
Stutting also took issue with the bill's proposed measures to increase teacher pay.
"Unless the program goes away, the money will carry over as a savings account. You never spend savings accounts on ongoing expenses, like salaries," he said. "But the devil is in the details, and there are a lot of details that aren't yet spelled out."
Stutting remains opposed to the bill due to it diverting millions of dollars from public schools, which serve the vast majority of Iowa's student population. If it passes, he hopes the state focuses on leveling the playing field for public schools and hold private schools accountable with the state money.
At Rivermont, Roach sees the bill as leveling the playing field for families who couldn't have enrolled their students in private school otherwise.
"It's not about warring against public schools, it's about enabling people to make the right choice for their individual kid. The truth is, socio-economically, so many Iowans aren't in a position to have even considered whether private school can better meet their child's needs, so I think it's really exciting," he said. "I want to be tactful about it; I'd never want to have my school gain at the loss of someone, of something else. Yet private schools know all to well the transiency among students — it's a really complicated thing.
Pleasant Valley superintendent Brian Strusz said he'd like to learn more specifics before weighing in on the proposal.