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Scores of Iowans pack hearing on tuition aid bill

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DES MOINES — For a second time in less than a week, Iowans packed a legislative hearing room Tuesday at the Iowa Capitol to sound off on Gov. Kim Reynolds’ private school financial assistance proposal, which Republican lawmakers seem intent to fast-track to a floor vote after the idea failed previously.

More than a hundred individuals roughly split between supporters and opponents signed up to speak for up to two minutes each during the 90-minute hearing on House Study Bill 1. Hundreds more submitted written comments.

Earlier in the day, an Iowa House committee advanced a new chamber rule along party lines, with Democrats opposed, allowing the bill and others assigned to a newly formed House Education Reform Committee to bypass review by committees that review spending and tax issues, where the proposal’s financial impact would have been assessed.

The governor’s office estimates the state will spend $107 million in the program’s first year. By full implementation in the fourth year, the state would spend $341 million annually, it estimates.

House Minority Leader Jennifer Konfrst, D-Windsor Heights, and lobbyists for groups that represent educators, administrators and public school districts decried the move, stating it flies in the face of transparency, good governance and accountability.

“If members of this committee truly believe the policies they move through the Education Reform Committee are what Iowans asked for — what your constituents have asked for — then there should be no problem making sure that a bill that makes significant policy changes and an expenditure of resources goes through the appropriate process,” said Melissa Peterson on behalf of the Iowa State Education Association, which represents public school teachers in the state.

Margaret Buckton, a lobbyist for Urban Education Network of Iowa and Rural School Advocates of Iowa, said the rule would bypass a “time-tested process” that allows for more public engagement and deeper analysis.

Konfrst chastised House Republicans, who hold a 64-36 majority, for circumventing fiscal oversight in the interest of expediting Reynolds’ top legislative priority.

House Speaker Pat Grassley, R-New Hartford, contends Republicans are being transparent, choosing to hold a public hearing on the bill. Grassley, too, said he is “more than happy” to have an open committee debate on the tax and spending implications of the bill.

He said he created the committee in large part to review and advance the bill for a vote in the House, where Reynolds’ previous school choice proposals stalled each of the past two years, rather than getting it blocked in committee.

“We feel that Iowans have an expectation, whether you support it or you don’t, that a committee procedure should not be the reason you don’t get to see where the legislature stands,” Grassley said.

House Appropriations Committee Chair Gary Mohr, R-Bettendorf, said he was “fine” with the rule change. “They’re the ones in charge of the agenda, not me,” he said of House leaders. “And I’ll defer to whatever their wishes are on that.”

Reynolds’ proposal would create taxpayer-funded Educational Savings Accounts, valued at $7,598 in the first year — the amount the state spends per pupil on public K-12 education — that families could use for private school tuition and other education expenses.

The program would be phased in over three years, prioritizing kindergarten and low-income students in the first two years. In the third year, all K-12 students — including private school students — would be eligible for the funding, with no income restrictions.

Public schools would lose out on the per-pupil funding for any students who choose to attend a private school. However, the legislation also provides each school district roughly $1,200 for every student who lives in the district but attends a private school. That funding is devoted whether the private school student is a recent transfer or has always attended private school.

Supporters say the funding is needed to give more families an opportunity with state assistance to send their children to the school that best fit their needs.

“Passing this bill will allow full education freedom for families, providing true customization that allows us to think broader about our education opportunities,” said Samantha Fett, a former Carlisle school board member and parent.

“The No. 1 budget line item in Iowa is education,” Fett said. “And what do we have to show for it? Low test scores. Underperforming schools. Less than the best-educated students. … School choice is the only way to move away from this one-size-fits-all disaster.”

She and several other parents urged lawmakers to serve the best interest of students, and that the state should be funding the education of children — not institutions.

Opponents argue the measure would siphon resources away from public schools to fund the education of a few students at private schools, including those who can afford to attend without the state aid. Students, they argue, would be better served by using such funds to make public schools stronger.

Critics, too, note the proposal does not provide an actual choice for students living in rural areas who have few, if any, access points to schools other than their local public schools. According to Iowa Department of Education, there are 40 counties with no private schools, nearly all of them rural counties. There were 33,692 students enrolled in 183 private schools Iowa for the 2022-2023 school year, according to state data.

Proponents have said the proposal would expand the market for private schools, meaning new schools could open in those areas.

Opponents as well argue the measure would further segregate public schools, allowing private schools to accept taxpayer dollars but reject students for a variety of reasons.

“My school, Iowa’s public schools, accept all students regardless of their abilities, color, religion, language and any other difference,” said Mike Beranek, president of the Iowa State Education Association.

Des Moines parent Jazlyn Fitz said her autistic son, who has an Individualized Education Plan, and other children like him will have “no choice” to attend private school, “because private schools can’t and will choose not to accept him and his specialized needs.”

“In my mind, vouchers are discriminatory toward disabled children because there is no guarantee that they will be accepted and property supported in private schools,” Fitz said. “My taxpayer funds should go toward funding public institution with access to everyone.”

Dan Zylstra, head of school at Pella Christian Schools, previously served as a public school principal and superintendent at rural public schools in Indiana

“School choice did not decimate my rural public school district,” Zylstra said. “The vast majority stayed in my school district and we loved it. … (T)he enrollment declines happening in rural Iowa are happening because of broad population losses; not because of school choice. To say school choice would kill rural schools is false. To help them, we need to provide flexibility in how to use their existing funds.”