Republicans approved the bill despite objections from Democrats and others who argued the new education savings accounts would lead to reduced funding for public schools. Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds, who made the private school funding measure one of her top priorities after failing to pass similar but less expansive proposals twice before, said she would sign the bill later Tuesday.
“For the first time, we will fund students instead of a system, a decisive step in ensuring that every child in Iowa can receive the best education possible," Reynolds said in a statement. “Parents, not the government, can now choose the education setting best suited to their child regardless of their income or zip code.”
The bill passed the state House late Monday and the Senate early Tuesday with only Republican support.
With passage of the bill, Iowa joins West Virginia and Arizona, as states that provide taxpayer money to help families pay student tuition and other expenses at private schools. However, Arizona's new Democrat governor, Katie Hobbs, has made it known she wants to put an end to that policy.
Legislatures also are considering similar program in other states, including Florida, Nebraska, Virginia and Utah.
Iowa Republicans, who hold wide majorities in the House and Senate, approved the bill remarkably quickly, with final passage coming in the third week of the legislative session. A nonpartisan analysis by the Legislatives Services Agency estimated the measure would cost $344.9 million annually in its fourth year, after it is fully implemented. The agency noted its assessment came without knowing some details, including the cost of paying a business to oversee the program.
The governor and Republican legislators have argued that they support the state’s public schools but that all families should be able to send their children to private school, not just those wealthy enough to afford the tuition. They note that if students opt for private school, their $7,600 in per-pupil support would follow them to the private institution, but the plan would send $1,200 to the public school districts where the students resides. The public funding also would be available to students already enrolled in private schools, with family income requirements phasing out over three years.
During debate Monday night, Rep. Steven Holt, a Republican from Denison, said Democrats were overstating what the private school funding would mean to public schools.
“If in fact a huge number of students were to leave public schools to attend accredited private schools, then it becomes profoundly clear just how important it was that we gave parents greater choice, since such an exodus would lay bare the realities that these schools were not meeting the needs of our students," Crawford said.
Democratic legislators and other opponents of the plan countered that Iowa lawmakers have for years provided inadequate support, forcing districts to repeatedly cut their budgets. They said the new plan would worsen that funding problems, especially hurting the state’s largest urban district and some of its smallest rural districts.
They noted that nearly half of Iowa’s 99 counties don’t have a private school and that most of the new funding will go to schools in the state’s largest cities.
“This legislation is a blank check to private schools in Iowa's biggest, wealthiest cities with no oversight, no accountability. And when it all falls apart, rural schools that close as a result of this legislation cannot just reopen easily," said Rep. Sami Scheetz, a Democrat from Cedar Rapids.
However, for supporters of the plan like Oliver Bardwell, of Waukee, a Des Moines suburb, the key is to give parents more options.
“Parents want a voice, and they want a choice,” Bardwell said at a public hearing last week about the plan. “They want to be heard and they want their children to have the opportunity to an education that aligns with their family’s values.”