Gov. Kim Reynolds celebrates victory as ‘school choice’ program becomes law

Photo by Robin Opsahl/Iowa Capital Dispatch Gov. Kim Reynolds signs the “Students First Act,” legislation establishing a private school scholarship program into law Tuesday at the Iowa State Capitol in Des Moines after it passed in the early hours that day.

After years of debate and a decisive election with school choice at center stage, Gov. Kim Reynolds signed her private school scholarship program into law Tuesday.

Students and staff of Iowa private schools gathered around the lectern in the Capitol rotunda as Reynolds and supporters celebrated passing the legislation, which cleared the Senate less than 12 hours earlier. The governor thanked Republican lawmakers, “school choice” advocates and parents for their work in getting the bill through the legislative process.

“I urged the General Assembly to think big and to aim high, to ignore the hysteria that always accompanies school change,” Reynolds said. “In passing the Students First Act that is what you did, and I cannot think of a more worthy cause to aim high and dream big for than the future of our children.”

The Iowa House and Senate spent nearly 10 hours debating the legislation, which Reynolds named as her top priority for the 2023 legislative session. The law establishes an education savings account (ESA) program for K-12 students, giving students an account of $7,598 each year to use for private school tuition and associated costs.

Starting the 2023-2024 school year, all kindergarteners, Iowa public school students and private school students with a family income of 300 percent or below the federal poverty line will be eligible to receive funds from the program. The income eligibility expands to 400 percent of the federal poverty line in the second year and there is no income limit starting in the third year.

While Republicans celebrated the victory, Democrats and public school advocates continued to express disappointment in the legislation. Democratic Sen. Claire Celsi of West Des Moines shouted, “Nobody wants vouchers!” from the rotunda balcony. She was drowned out by a standing ovation for the governor, who said, “We will never give up” on school choice legislation.

Critics said the legislation would harm public schools, especially those in rural areas. Iowa State Education Association President Mike Beranek said by passing the governor’s bill, legislators were ignoring their constituents’ wishes. Almost three-fourths of Iowa public schools are counties with no option for private schools, he said, and this legislation prioritizes private school students over the 92 percent of Iowa students in public schools.

“Make no mistake, this is not a war between public schools and private schools,” Beranek said in a statement. “It is a conflict between how taxpayer money is spent on private schools without equal access and no accountability or taxpayer oversight. Elected officials have a responsibility to serve all the people of our great state. This legislation serves just a few, with all the people’s money.”

But the governor said the bill helps Iowa’s public education system and teachers by allowing schools to put certain unspent categorical funds, such as dollars for talented and gifted programs, toward teacher salaries.

Reynolds also pointed to the bill’s provision to give roughly $1,205 per private school student to the public school district in which that family resides. Just because this bill gave parents the option to choose to send their children to private schools does not mean that they will not continue working to better public schools, she said.

“We’re gonna continue to work with them and see if there’s other things that we can do to help so it’s not a one and done,” Reynolds told reporters. “We’re gonna continue to monitor it. Just make sure that we’re meeting the mark and doing what we intended.”

Estimates from the governor’s office and Legislative Services Agency estimate the program will cost $106.9 million in the upcoming fiscal year, and will cost roughly $345 million per year once income restrictions are fully phased out. But Democrats questioned whether the state will see additional costs when working with a third-party vendor to administer the program.

Gov. Kim Reynolds celebrates victory as ‘school choice’ program becomes law


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