The third time was indeed the charm for Gov. Kim Reynolds’ plan to implement a private school voucher program in Iowa.
The Iowa House passed her bill 55-45 on Monday—all Democrats voted against it, along with nine Republicans—after a nearly five-hour floor debate that saw legislators tell heartfelt stories about what public education has done for them, more questions about what is actually in the bill, and one representative insinuating that a voucher would have stopped one student from allegedly killing his teacher.
The bill passed by a 31-18 margin in the Iowa Senate shortly after midnight.
Reynolds made her “Students First Act” her top priority in the legislature and on the 12th day of session, it passed shortly after midnight on Tuesday. Her much smaller voucher bills from the last two sessions failed, but both the Iowa House and Senate implemented special rules so this year’s bill could skip normal vetting procedures.
According to the fiscal note from the nonpartisan Iowa Legislative Services Agency (LSA), which released its note only hours before the debates began, the bill will cost about $878 million over the first four years, but there is no limit on how much can be spent toward it.
Under the new bill, every Iowa public school student—more than 481,000 kids, according to state data—would be eligible to receive $7,598 from the state that their families can use to pay for private school tuition or other associated expenses.
Private school students would also be granted access to those funds. The first two years of the bill’s enactment would limit that ability to lower-income private school kids, but by the third year, it would be open to all.
While the LSA estimate comes in slightly lower than the projections from Reynolds’ office, it also notes that its estimate does not include the cost of the third-party vendor the Iowa Department of Education will contract with to manage the voucher system.
“I hear a lot of doom and gloom, but this is a glorious day in Iowa,” said Rep. Skyler Wheeler (R-Iowa). “Today, every family in the state will be treated the same. Today, the state will fund students and not systems.”
The bill does not require private schools that receive public dollars to adhere to the same standards as Iowa public schools, so private schools can reject students who have special needs, who are part of the LGBTQ+ community, or who don’t practice the religion the school adheres to.
Iowa House and Senate Democrats as well as a few House Republicans who voted against the bill shared a number of concerns including how it would affect rural Iowa.
“It’s not going to have a huge impact on the urban and suburban school districts—they are going to make it—but we’re going to see an impact on rural Iowa,” said Rep. John Forbes (D-Urbandale).
“I came from rural Iowa; I came from Wright County and I want to make sure that we continue to have a strong school district system in the rural parts of our state. This is a bad bill for Iowa.”
Rep. Tom Moore (R-Griswold) said he voted against the bill because that is what his constituents wanted.
“I’m in a very Republican, very conservative district and they were telling me ‘no’ and I was listening to my constituents; I represent them, I don’t represent myself—although I was opposing of it,” Moore said.
During the Senate debate, Minority Leader Zach Wahls (D-Coralville) talked about how public schools bring people together and why communities need that.
“Amid this divided political climate, it is clear that we need more of this community that brings Iowans from different backgrounds together,” he said. “The governor’s proposal will result in less of that community. Not more of it. That is why we need more resources for our public schools, not less.”
Sen. Sarah Trone-Garriott (D-West Des Moines) called out her Republican colleagues for rushing this bill.
“If legislators were proud of what they were doing, they wouldn’t be rushing this process, refusing amendments and limiting debate; legislators would not be hiding from the press and the public,” she said.
“If this was really good for economy, we wouldn’t be voting on a bill for which we just got the independent fiscal analysis this morning, rushing it through before we even know anything about the private third-party vendors who are supposed to keep track of millions, hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars in tens of thousands of accounts all with debit cards attached. What can go wrong?”
by Ty Rushing
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