Gov. Kim Reynolds’ private school voucher bill is ready for debate on the Iowa Senate floor after passing through Thursday’s Senate Appropriations Committee meeting on a party-line 12-6 vote.
The Iowa House advanced the bill on Wednesday and both chambers are set to debate the bill on Monday.
During the Appropriations Committee meeting, Democrats and other opponents of the bill highlighted the amount of money being allocated for a minority of students whose families choose to enroll in private schools and the effect it will have on the majority of students in the state.
“Every dollar that is given to the private schools is a dollar that cannot be invested in public education. If you want to build stronger public schools, if you want to educate all kids, we need to make sure that funding is making it to where the majority of the kids are,” Sen. Molly Donahue (D-Cedar Rapids) said.
The purpose of the committee meeting was to highlight the fiscal impact of the bill. The nonpartisan Iowa Legislative Services Agency (LSA) has not completed its fiscal note on the bill, but Molly Severn, the liaison from Reynolds’ office, repeated previous estimates the governor’s staff has given. Those projections show that the bill would cost $901 million over its first four years alone.
“This is just an estimate,” said Sens. Claire Celsi (D-West Des Moines). “We don’t have the fiscal note. We have no clue what it’s really going to cost.”
Donahue, Celsi, and Janet Petersen (D-Des Moines) argued that because Iowa’s public schools educate 92% of Iowa’s children, that public funding should be the priority.
Celsi also said all of the money comes from the same source, Iowa’s general fund, which is why she’s concerned about the impact on public schools.
“It will affect public schools, especially since the revenue conference this year has estimated that tax cuts are going to start kicking in, are going to take us down a couple billion and a half dollars in the next couple of years. So our revenue is going to be lower,” she said. “You can’t have it both ways. Something’s got to give.”
The Democratic senators also pointed out that the state hasn’t set the State Supplemental Aid (SSA) level yet, which is the state’s per-pupil funding for K-12 students. Reynolds has called for a 2.5% increase. However, many districts have said that number does not provide enough actual funding to keep up with inflation, even if it is an increase.
There were public comments at the beginning of Thursday’s meeting.
Margaret Buckton, who represents Rural School Advocates of Iowa and Urban Education Network of Iowa, said SSA money applies to enrollment numbers taken in the previous school year and that could lead to problems if students aren’t counted.
“We take enrollment count on October 1st,” she said. “If that student isn’t counted, which means they’ve taken the education savings account, but then comes back to the public school in December, they won’t be counted in enrollment until the following October 1st and then won’t be funded by the state foundation formula until the following July 1. So we could be educating that student in public school for 18 to 20 months without funding.”
Sen. Tim Kraayenbrink (R-Fort Dodge) managed the bill in the committee. He emphasized that Iowa is in a strong place financially because of Republican leadership, and that means the state can handle this and that it’s the legislature’s responsibility to continue pursuing this program.
“It is our job as legislators and government in the state of Iowa to educate every child to the best that we possibly can,” he said. “And we feel that this is one thing we can do for the families and the parents who want another choice that they feel that their students aren’t being fed, or aren’t being educated in a way that they feel is proper.”
Kraayenbrink didn’t address specific concerns but said district school boards know how to handle the funding in the best way to meet their needs.
Democrats on the committee maintained that less money to public schools in total will mean less flexibility and opportunity for the majority of students in Iowa schools.
“You take away dollars from our children going to public schools, take away their smaller class sizes, take away their programming to give to a small percentage of Iowans who want taxpayers to pay for private schools, we will see less and less dollars going to the majority of our children in our public school system,” Petersen said.
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