Gov. Kim Reynolds was ecstatic Tuesday as she signed into law a seismic education plan three years in the making.
“What an amazing day for our children!” she exclaimed to a crowd of children, parents, lawmakers and other supporters gathered in the Iowa Capitol rotunda.
Surrounded by private school students, Reynolds, a Republican, inked her signature on a law that will allow any Iowa family to use taxpayer funds to pay for private school tuition — at a cost of $345 million annually to the state once fully phased in.
The sweeping legislation represents Reynolds’ third — and most ambitious — attempt to pass some form of “school choice” legislation, a push that has been mirrored in other Republican-led states. In years past, disagreement over her previous proposals dragged on for months before ultimately ending in failure.
But this year, Republicans made use of their expanded legislative majorities to muscle the latest version of the legislation into law by just the third week of the session.
Reynolds touted the law’s benefits for families, saying Iowa will be “funding students instead of a system.”
“Public schools are the foundation of our educational system, and for most families, they’ll continue to be the option of choice. But they aren’t the only choice. And for some families, a different path may be better for their children,” she said, drawing a few scattered murmurs of “amen” from the crowd.
Opposition from Democrats has been fierce. Sen. Claire Celsi, D-West Des Moines, stood above Reynolds in the Capitol rotunda during the ceremony and shouted “nobody wants vouchers” before she was drowned out by the supportive crowd.
Lawmakers debated the bill throughout the afternoon Monday and into the early hours of Tuesday morning to get the measure to Reynolds for her signature during National School Choice week.
The proposal, House File 68, sped through the legislative process exactly two weeks after Reynolds called on lawmakers to pass it in her Condition of the State address. Republican legislative leaders eliminated procedural hurdles that stood in the way of the bill’s passage.
Twelve Republicans — nine in the House and three in the Senate — joined Democrats in opposition to the bill. Democrats have harshly criticized the legislation, saying it will harm rural public schools while benefiting wealthy families.
“Spending public money with no accountability is reckless. Our public schools and students deserve better,” said Sen. Molly Donahue, D-Cedar Rapids. “Until we are willing to provide adequate funding for the vast majority of our public school students, we should not be creating a private, exclusive school entitlement program with unknown costs and unlimited funding — a blank check.”
What will the private school law do, and who will qualify for funding?
The law will phase in over three years and eventually allow all Iowa families to use up to $7,598 a year in an “education savings account” for private school tuition.
If any money is left over after tuition and fees, families can use the funds for specific educational expenses, including textbooks, tutoring, standardized testing fees, online education programs and vocational and life skills training.
For the first year of the program, the 2023-24 school year, the funds will be available to all incoming kindergarten students and all public school students. It will also be offered to current private school families who make at or below 300% of the federal poverty level.
Eligibility will expand to include private school families at or below 400% of the federal poverty line in the 2024-2025 school year.
When the law is fully phased in by the 2025-2026 school year, every Iowa family will be eligible for the program.
The law also allocates $1,205 to public schools for each student within the district who uses the state funds to attend private school and allows public schools to use funding more flexibly to raise teacher pay.
How much will the law cost Iowa taxpayers each year?
Over the course of the first four years, the state will spend about $879 million as the program phases in.
The Legislative Services Agency’s analysis predicts 14,068 students will be enrolled in the program in fiscal year 2024, its first year. That includes an estimated 4,841 students who would transfer from a public school to a nonpublic school.
By fiscal year 2027, the agency expects 41,687 students in Iowa to receive education savings accounts to pay their private school costs. Over that time, the agency projects enrollment in public schools to drop from 486,476 in fiscal year 2024 to 475,207 in fiscal year 2027.
By the fourth year, the agency estimates public school districts will receive $49.8 million in new per-student funds for private school students within the public district’s boundaries. The agency also expects a net decrease of $46 million in public school funding as a result of more students attending private schools.
The nonpartisan analysis says the cost to administer the program is unknown. The bill allows the Iowa Department of Education to contract with a third party to administer the education savings accounts, but the state hasn’t issued a request for proposals from companies seeking to manage the funds.
Lawmakers debated past midnight — and Reynolds was there with selfies to celebrate
Reynolds’ bill signing came less than 12 hours after the Iowa Senate passed the legislation early Tuesday morning, following debate that stretched past midnight.
Opponents spoke for hours against the proposal, arguing it would take money away from public school districts while unfairly benefiting private schools that are subject to different rules.
“Public schools accept all kids. Private schools pick and choose,” said House Minority Leader Jennifer Konfrst, D-Windsor Heights. “This is not about school choice. This is about school administrator choice. School administrators decide who goes to our private schools; public schools welcome all children.”
But Republican leaders on the legislation echoed Reynolds, arguing the law will allow parents long-awaited choice in education.
“This bill is about freedom,” said Rep. John Wills, R-Spirit Lake, the bill’s House floor manager. “This bill is about freedom for the family to make a decision. This bill is about where that family feels that child will be best taught. This bill is not about attacking teachers. The opponents of this bill will state that we’re attacking teachers over and over again tonight. Nothing could be further from the truth.”
House lawmakers voted 55-45 to pass the bill after more than five hours of debate Monday evening, with nine Republicans defecting to join every Democrat in opposition. Just after midnight, the Senate followed suit with a 31-18 vote to send the bill to Reynolds for her signature. Three Republicans were opposed.
Reynolds waited behind the Senate chambers in the early hours of Tuesday morning, where she hugged Republican supporters of her bill and took selfies, including with Senate President Amy Sinclair. Reynolds cheered when Corey DeAngelis, a national school choice activist, appeared for a round of hugs and selfies.
“Iowa’s now going to be a national leader on education freedom,” DeAngelis said. “And I’m happy that the governor, Kim Reynolds, has been a staunch supporter of parental rights in education, and this just cements that fact even further.”
House Republican opposition wasn’t enough to stop the bill from becoming law
As Reynolds thanked lawmakers during Tuesday’s signing ceremony, she gave a special shoutout to House Majority Leader Matt Windschitl.
“Thank you for everything that you’ve done to make sure that we had the numbers, we had the votes to get it across the finish line,” she said. “We could not be more grateful.”
Her praise illustrated the importance of the effort by Iowa’s Republican House leaders like Windschitl and House Speaker Pat Grassley to get the bill passed after two years of failure.
Opposition from House Republicans helped sink previous versions of Reynolds’ proposal, leading Reynolds to campaign against several sitting Republican representatives over the issue. Then, the GOP expanded its House majority to 64 seats in the general election, ushering in more supporters of the issue and giving Republican leadership an added cushion.
This year, the bill’s opponents lacked the votes to block the legislation.
Rep. Tom Moore, R-Griswold, told reporters following the vote that his constituents were asking him to vote against it.
“It came down very simply to my constituents,” he said. “I’m in a very Republican, very conservative district and they were telling me no.”
Rep. Brian Lohse, R-Bondurant, said he worries that sending state money to private schools will eventually result in more regulations for those schools. And he disagreed with the bill’s lack of income limits for wealthy families.
“I certainly can afford to send my kids to a private school,” he said in an interview with the Des Moines Register. “I feel great discomfort in expanding this to people like me, and it just seems to me like costs that we don’t need to incur. It’s a big dollar figure.”
Speaking at the signing ceremony, Grassley said Republicans have focused on education issues like requiring in-person school and banning mask mandates because they’ve heard from Iowans about their priorities.
“Whether it was getting your kids back in schools, whether it was making sure that they didn’t have to wear a mask … we didn’t do those things just because we came up with them,” he said. “We came up with those ideas because we heard from Iowans.”
Stephen Gruber-Miller covers the Iowa Statehouse and politics for the Register. He can be reached by email at email@example.com or by phone at 515-284-8169. Follow him on Twitter at @sgrubermiller.