House passes ‘School Voucher Bill,’ moves to Senate

Published: Jan. 23, 2023 at 10:19 PM CST
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CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa (KCRG) - The Students First Act is closer to appearing on Governor Kim Reynolds’ desk.

After a debate that lasted for hours, the House vote was 55 to 45 to create Education Savings Accounts (ESA) that would allow taxpayer money to help fund private school education.

The vote was not along party lines—there are 64 Republicans in the House, and the bill was approved by 55 lawmakers.

The bill is an overhaul of Iowa’s education system and, while it’s been a priority of Gov. Reynolds for years now, the vote on the bill comes only two weeks after the start of the 2023 legislative session.

The bill brings a lot of changes:

  • For Fiscal Year 2024, which will start this fall, those who will be eligible for an (ESA) include all kindergarteners, any kid who went to public school the year before, and kids who were already in private school and who live in a household with an annual income at or below 300% of the poverty level. For a family of four, that is $83,250.
  • The next fiscal year is similar, except for kids who were already in private school, the threshold goes to those who live in a household with an annual income 400% of the poverty level, $111,000 for a family of four.
  • In Fiscal Year 2026, all kids who attend a public school are eligible.
  • The ESA will carry forward with every student who has one until the student becomes ineligible by graduating high school or turning 20.

An ESA would provide an individual student with about $7,600 to spend on private school tuition as well as other educational costs, such as tutoring or textbooks.

Representative John Will (R - Dickinson County) said the reason for the bill was to put parents in charge of where and what their kids learn.

“If a parent’s upset in Ankeny Community Schools that their school had a drag queen show and they don’t want their child to be a part of that situation anymore, this bill will give them the option of opting out,” said Wills.

Rep. Jennifer Konfrst (D - Polk County) said, “This is not about school choice, this is about school administrator choice.”

Democrats argued against the bill on the grounds that private schools are not required to accept all students, whereas public schools are, including those who need special or additional services, like kids with disabilities or English Language Learners. If the bill passes and students use taxpayer money to attend private schools, they would not have to change their admission criteria.

“The private schools would have autonomy to conduct business as they have in the past,” said Wills.

In the plan, public schools would lose $7,600 for each student that uses an ESA. The state would give public schools $1,200 to offset the loss. Wills said that would include students who never attended the public schools.

However, according to one Democrat’s math, that won’t make up for the loss of students by a long shot.

“Say a school district with about 1000 students, say about 5 percent of those kids would opt to go to private schools, you would see a net loss of about 320 thousand dollars per year,” said Rep. John Forbes (D - Polk County). “That’s including the $1,205 they’re getting back from the state.”

Republicans argue the bill actually helps public schools by allowing them to access unused money from three specific funds at the end of any fiscal year.

“We have about $246 million sitting in accounts not being used in the state of Iowa, so this bill would allow for those funds to be spent, if the school chooses,” said Wills.

As for the overall picture, Monday morning a document about the financial impact of the bill was released. It said quote “the cost to administer the program is unknown at this time.”

Democrats pointed out rural districts could be especially impacted financially, and there are many counties that don’t even have a private alternative.

Republicans said the bill was about freedom and giving another option to those who want it, and they believe that can coexist with support of the public school system.

“I have faith in public schools. I don’t believe that, when we pass this bill tonight, there will be a mass exodus,” said Wills.