After two years of setbacks, Gov. Kim Reynolds proposed a more ambitious and far-reaching “school choice” plan Tuesday, calling on the Legislature to make available to every Iowa student a taxpayer-funded scholarship that their families can use to pay for private school.
Reynolds, a Republican, made the announcement during her annual State of the State address in the Capitol. She called out the criticism and “hysteria” she endured for her decision to reopen public schools during the height of the coronavirus pandemic — a move that ultimately endeared her to large swaths of Iowa Republicans — and likened it to the debate over her “school choice ” agenda
“We stood the strongest when it mattered the most: When it was about our children,” she said in prepared remarks. “I would do it all over again. And what I’ve come here tonight to tell you, is that I will do it again. More importantly, that we will do it again. If we are not providing a foundational education for our children, then we are failing.”
This is the third year in a row the governor has pushed to use state money for Iowans’ private school expenses. Her plans have failed twice in the Iowa House in the face of united opposition from Democrats and reluctance from holdouts within her own party.
This year, Reynolds is working with a newly elected Iowa House, including several Republicans who replaced incumbents who opposed her plans.
House Republicans expanded their majority in last fall’s election and now hold 64 seats in the 100-person chamber. The Iowa Senate, also controlled by Republicans, has passed Reynolds’ proposals in each of the last two years.
The new “school choice” proposal marks a significant expansion of her previous efforts. While her 2022 proposal would have limited the number of scholarships to 10,000 families statewide below a certain income threshold, the new plan would phase in every family in the state over a three-year period.
The price tag for the first year alone would be $106.9 million and would grow in succeeding years, although the exact figures were not immediately available.
Reynolds also is proposing a 2.5% increase in state aid to public schools in her budget, taking total public school funds to $3.68 billion.
“Regardless of the reason, every parent should have a choice of where to send their child — and that choice shouldn’t be limited to families who can afford it,” Reynolds said.
Democrats have consistently criticized Reynolds’ push to let families use taxpayer money to pay private school costs. They say her proposal will harm public schools, especially those in rural areas, which would suffer from lower enrollment and state funding.
House Minority Leader Jennifer Konfrst predicted expanded eligibility for the scholarships would make the plan “a lot less popular with Iowans.”
“Iowans didn’t like the plan when there were income limits on it,” said Konfrst, D-Windsor Heights. “They’re certainly not gonna like it when it means a rich family in Des Moines can put their money in savings and take taxpayer dollars to their private school while public schools across the state crumble.”
Reynolds also proposed more funding for pregnancy resource centers that counsel against abortion, and she unveiled a plan to reorganize Iowa’s state government by consolidating the number of state agencies by more than half.
Every Iowa family would qualify for private school scholarships in Reynolds’ plan
On top of expanding the reach of her education plan to every family in Iowa, Reynolds said her new proposal will also increase the amount of money families would receive from the state for their education savings accounts.
Each student who applies for an education savings account would receive $7,598 from the state under her plan, Reynolds said — that’s the total amount of funding Iowa provides for each child attending a public school. Last year’s iteration would have provided about $5,500 per student.
By the third year of the plan, families would be eligible for scholarships regardless of income, Reynolds said. That’s a change from her plan last year to limit eligibility to 400% of the federal poverty guidelines.
And the scholarships would be available to students who currently attend private schools, as well as those switching from public to private schools.
Reynolds has often said her education plan is not a zero-sum game, and she’s pushed back against criticisms that the proposal pits public and private schools against each other.
“We have incredible public schools filled with amazing, dedicated teachers. My daughter is one of them,” Reynolds said. “But every child is an individual who deserves an education tailored to their unique needs, and parents are in the best position to identify the right environment.”
It remains unclear whether Reynolds has support for her plan in the Iowa House. This year, House Speaker Pat Grassley, R-New Hartford, created a new Education Reform Committee to handle the legislation. Following Reynolds’ speech, Grassley called the proposal “a very bold plan” and said he expects it to begin moving through the process soon because “there’s obviously a lot of members eager for it.”
Faith-based groups have supported Reynolds’ previous education proposals, and Reynolds noted that a faith-based education would likely be appealing to some families.
“Some families may want an education that conforms to their faith and moral convictions,” she said. “Some kids may have ambitions and abilities that require a unique educational setting; others may experience bullying or have special needs.”
Critics of Reynolds have said private schools, including religious schools, aren’t required to accept all students like public schools.
“Overwhelmingly, Iowans do not want their hard-earned tax dollars to be funneled to private schools — private schools that are in charge of who gets in and who doesn’t, not the parents,” said Interfaith Alliance of Iowa Executive Director Connie Ryan.
Reynolds also called for giving school districts more flexibility over certain funds, allowing them to use that money to increase teacher pay.
Waiting on court decision, Reynolds proposes funding alternatives to abortion
Reynolds is a staunch abortion opponent. But she and legislative leaders have said they’re waiting for a key court decision before introducing or passing new bills restricting abortion.
The Iowa Supreme Court is set to consider whether a 2018 law that bans abortion after about six weeks of pregnancy can take effect in Iowa.
Rather than calling for more restrictions, Reynolds asked legislators to provide additional funds to groups that dissuade women from getting abortions and provide other services such as counseling or parenting classes.
“(A) pro-life state is one that surrounds every person involved in a pregnancy — born and unborn, mother and father — with protection, love, and support,” Reynolds said.
Lawmakers created a framework to fund pregnancy resource centers last session with the passage of the “More Options for Maternal Support” bill, known as MOMS. Reynolds is proposing a $1.5 million increase for the program.
“Tonight, I’m calling on the Legislature to expand the MOMS Program to promote paternal involvement and address the needs of fathers,” Reynolds said. “This new funding would allow us to provide nonprofit grants to assist at-risk dads, as well as mentorship for school-age males.”
Reynolds said she would also request funding for four new OB-GYN fellowships for primary care doctors and provide a $12 million increase for a health care apprenticeship program.
She returned to a stalled-out priority from last session, arguing that Iowa must cap at $1 million the amount of noneconomic damages a person can claim in court in medical malpractice cases.
She said “out-of-control verdicts” are “driving our OB-GYN clinics out of business and medical school graduates out of state.”
Reynolds intends to merge more state agencies
Reynolds said she plans to cut the number of Iowa’s state agencies by more than half to realign the way the state offers services. The proposal would not cut agencies’ funding, programs or current employees, according to her staff.
“I’ll be introducing a bill that will improve the services we deliver and streamline our operations by taking us from 37 cabinet agencies to 16,” Reynolds said.
She said the current structure creates “unnecessary friction” for Iowans, because services are spread across multiple state agencies. Reynolds said 11 agencies operate some kind of workforce program while more than 100 professional licensing functions are spread across another 11 agencies.
“It’s been nearly 40 years since we’ve undertaken a comprehensive review of government operations and structure,” Reynolds said. “And frankly, it shows.”
She pointed to last year’s merger of Iowa’s Department of Human Services and Department of Public Health to create the new Health and Human Services Department under Director Kelly Garcia.
“The change paid off,” Reynolds said. “No employees lost their jobs, nor was any service downgraded in importance. In fact, just the opposite happened.”
Reynolds also took aim at what she described as a bloated and burdensome state regulatory framework.
She said she also issued an executive order Tuesday putting a moratorium on new administrative rules and directing state agencies to review rules and regulations spelled out in more than 20,000 pages of Iowa’s Administrative Code. Agencies will assess whether each one is “worth the economic cost,” Reynolds said, and “only those that meet this standard will be reissued. The rest will be repealed.”
“When it’s all said and done,” she said. “Iowa will have a smaller, clearer and more growth-friendly regulatory system.”
Stephen Gruber-Miller covers the Iowa Statehouse and politics for the Register. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 515-284-8169. Follow him on Twitter at @sgrubermiller.
Brianne Pfannenstiel is the chief political reporter for the Des Moines Register. Reach her at email@example.com or 515-284-8244. Follow her on Twitter at @brianneDMR.