Iowans got a chance to comment on Gov. Kim Reynolds’ latest bill to fund private school tuition with public tax dollars during a Tuesday public hearing held by the Iowa House Education Reform Committee.
House Republicans have fast-tracked the proposal so it skips several steps that bills normally go to before they reach the House floor for debate, including financial vetting through the Appropriations and Ways and Means committees. According to estimates Reynolds’ staff provided to other media outlets, the plan would cost $341 million annually once it is fully phased in.
The new plan would eventually allow any Iowa student to receive $7,598 annually from the state to pay for private school tuition and other related expenses, but a twist is that public schools would receive $1,205 per pupil in categorical funding, which would remain with the district whether or not the child attends a public or private school and this would even include current private school students.
West Des Moines School Board Member Fannette Elliott spoke out against the bill. She noted that private schools, unlike public schools, can pick and choose their students. Elliot also said even a fraction of the nearly $1 billion in new money allotted to it over the first four years alone would benefit her district greatly.
“In the spring of 2021, the district cut over $2 million from the budget, which resulted in us having to cut the eighth-grade arts program,” Elliott said. “This trend will continue, more cuts will be made which always means less for the students in our care.”
Several rural Iowa school board members also spoke out against the proposal.
Jacob Bolson, a farmer and president of the Hubbard-Radcliffe School Board of Education, said he is sure that he shares the same conservative, Christian values as a lot of people in the room and asked Republica House members to use common-sense accountability for Iowans’ tax dollars.
“I take great pride in our public schools and how our team works diligently each and every day to provide a development and nurturing environment to our students regardless of their background,” he told legislators.
“I emphasize that they are required by law to serve all students; there are no student entrance exams here.”
Joe Stutler, a disabled veteran from Marion, was registered to comment as pro on the bill but gave a satirical speech instead. He noted he would normally be opposed to bills like this, but with Iowa becoming redder politically, it’s best to take the approach of joining them if you can’t beat them.
“Having said that, I’m starting Little Devils Academy,” Stutler said. “Little Devils Academy will be a K-12 school aimed at very targeted schools because, quite frankly, I want a nice chunk of this grift money too. As long as you guys are going to be handing out money, why not let a veteran handle it.”
Christine Bothne, president of the Bode-based Twin Rivers School Board, was one of dozens of people who were camped out in the hallway or the Capitol rotunda who didn’t get a chance to address the committee directly due to the time limit, but she told Starting Line why she was opposed to the bill.
“There are so many people employed by the public education system that you’re going to see within three years if this passes, you’re gonna see massive cuts and massive layoffs only because there isn’t the funding for it,” Bothne said. “You can’t pull $400 million out of a system that has already been stretched to its limits.”
Bothne also talked about the lack of transparency with private schools compared to their public counterparts.
“They will not tell you what their budgets are, what their expenditures are,” she said. “They don’t have to have any accountability at all. And that’s why when you have a publicly elected school board, your tax money is in their hands and you have somebody that you could go to and say what’s my money doing.”
Supporters of the bills who spoke during the hearing told a variety of stories about why it’s important to them.
Separately, a mother and daughter duo from Sioux Center talked about how important it was for their Christian beliefs to be part of their education, and how this bill would help their family continue to afford that option.
Patty Alexander, a member of Moms For Liberty— a Florida-based right-wing nonprofit “dedicated to fighting for the survival of America”—accused public schools of wanting a monopoly on children and said those institutions have a liberal agenda.
“If public education would have stayed true to its purpose, which was to preserve liberty, we wouldn’t be having this discussion,” she said. “Public education has become socially disruptive, ruled by selfish elitists that do not care about our family values or society in general.”
Chuck Hurley, a lobbyist for the Urbandale-based socially conservative Family Leader organization, said he supports the bill and hates the argument that public money should go to public schools because those restrictions don’t exist elsewhere when it comes to public funds.
“Think about it for just a moment. Is that how we deal with our medical care? Do we say that Medicaid money can only be spent at a government hospital or with a government voucher? Do we say that food stamps can only be spent at the government grocery stores,” he said.
“It’s kind of absurd on its face to hear that and so we want education, we want to help people with medical problems, and we’re going to help poor people with food.”
Reynolds touts her proposal as truly giving parents a choice in where they send their kids to school and calls her plan the “Student First Act” because it would fund students directly rather than systems. She also said this shouldn’t be a public versus private debate, although some of the bill’s supporters argue that direct competition would improve public schools.
Although he didn’t a chance to address the committee directly, Pete Clancy, a former Cedar Rapids public school teacher turned public education advocate, told Starting Line this fight isn’t about disparaging private institutions.
“Nothing against the great private schools that we have in the state, but public money belongs in public schools, public schools serve the community as a whole and that’s why tax money needs to stay with public schools,” he said.
by Ty Rushing & Nikoel Hytrek
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