‘School choice’ bill advances; Iowa House and Senate expected to vote next week

Published: Jan. 20, 2023 at 5:49 AM CST
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DES MOINES, Iowa (KCCI) - After gaining approval from the Senate Appropriations Committee Thursday, the governor’s proposal to use taxpayer money to fund private school scholarships is ready for debate and a full vote on the Senate floor.

House File 68 passed out of the House Education Reform Committee Wednesday, the final hurdle it needed to clear before becoming eligible for a full House vote.

The House version of the governor’s ‘school choice’ plan is exempt from the traditional budgetary process requiring consideration in the House Appropriations or Ways and Means Committees. House Republicans made that change earlier this week.

The plan would give any Iowa student, regardless of income, $7,598 a year in an Education Savings Account if they switch from public to private school. Some income restrictions apply for students already attending private school, but the limits would expire two years after the plan is passed.

The governor has proposed similar bills in the last two sessions, though both were much narrower than her current proposal. Both plans were unable to secure enough support needed from House Republicans to become law.

Republican House Speaker Pat Grassley says, this year, he does expect to have enough votes needed to pass the plan.

“I don’t think I’d be moving the bill along throughout the process if we didn’t have that expectation,” Grassley told reporters Thursday.

Democrats argue that could change if Iowans call their lawmakers over the weekend.

“There is time between now and the debate to let your legislators know what the impact of this legislation will be on your rural districts on your school districts on your community and on our state’s budget,” House Minority Leader Jennifer Konfrst said. “Remind your legislators that we don’t work for the governor. We work for constituents.”

Although the bill has not yet received a fiscal note from the nonpartisan Legislative Services Agency, which evaluates the financial impact on the state budget, Grassley told reporters that Republicans have been transparent and diligent in their work to move the bill quickly.

“I’ve been very clear and transparent with what the cost impacts would be. [It’s] $341 million once fully implemented [and would provide funds for] roughly 42,000 students,” Grassley said. “All that information is available. I think that we’ve done our due diligence and done the work to put those spreadsheets together and those runs.”

Democrats worry the bill is moving too fast, especially for a legislature with so many first-time members.

“There are 39 members in the Iowa House of Representatives who weren’t here 14 days ago and are now having to vote on a very complex bill ... that they haven’t even really had a chance to absorb,” Konfrst said. “They’re still learning where everything is and how to file a bill. So this deserves more contemplation more time.”

As lawmakers prepare for a potential vote, controversy continues over whether the plan will improve choice and school instruction for all Iowans or leave public school students with less money and less education.

“There is no requirement that private schools take students with disabilities. They get to determine literally any criteria they’d like,” Konfrst said. “If a student wants to go to a school and isn’t Christian and it’s a Christian school, that school is not required to accept that student. These taxpayer dollars are going to schools that get to pick and choose which students they have.”

“This isn’t about public versus private,” Sen. Tim Kraayenbrink (R-Fort Dodge) told lawmakers during Thursday’s Senate Appropriations Committee meeting. “I know everybody likes to make it that way, but it’s about us taking our responsibility diligently and educating every student in the state of Iowa to the best of our ability.”