DES MOINES — Iowa students could use state funds to pay private school tuition under a bill passed Wednesday by the Iowa Senate.
Republican supporters of the proposal said school changes during the COVID-19 pandemic had engaged parents, bringing renewed focus to school choice and parental control. Sen. Amy Sinclair said it was elitist and “borderline racist and classist” to restrict private school attendance only to those families who can afford it out-of-pocket.
“There is no one-size-fits all when it comes to student success,” Sinclair, R-Allerton, said. “Only parents… should be the ones to have the opportunity to determine their child’s educational future.”
Senate File 2369 is an amended version of Gov. Kim Reynolds’ education proposal. It would allow some public school students to use some of their per-pupil state funding allocation toward tuition or other educational expenses at a private school.
Reynolds said she would “continue to be optimistic” about the bill’s chances to pass the House, where a similar proposal failed last year.
“Every day, when I talk to parents, it underscores how important it is to give parents the choice in their child’s education, to pick an environment that’s conducive to them,” Reynolds told reporters Wednesday morning. “And it shouldn’t just only be available to individuals who have the resources to do it. That is fundamentally wrong.”
Students who have an individualized education plan (IEP), or families who make under 400% of the federal poverty line would be eligible to use public funds to transfer to a private school.
The bill also requires schools to share all class materials and student records with parents. Parents would need to give written consent before a student engages with any “sexually explicit material,” a term the bill defines at length.
Senate Democrats objected vehemently to the bill, focusing primarily on the private school scholarship component. Senate Minority Leader Zach Wahls, D-Coralville, said the bill would drain funding from public schools.
“The idea that we would take away resources from public education to improve how we educate our students is out of touch… Why on Earth would we give private schools our taxpayer dollars when they don’t have the commitment or the responsibility of educating all Iowa students?” Wahls asked.
Democrats proposed several amendments, including one that would remove the private school scholarships entirely. Another Democratic proposal would allow the scholarships to stay, but it would require the same transparency standards for private schools as public schools and charter schools.
Sen. Herman Quirmbach, D-Ames, asked why parents would have “fewer rights” in private schools, which would not be subject to many of the transparency requirements the bill sets for public and charter schools.
Sinclair responded that nonpublic schools had the same requirements for teacher licensure, but that the transparency requirements were not needed as parents already had more control of private schools.
“Nonpublics are governed by parents,” Sinclair said. “Parents are the ones determining what happens in that school.”
All Democratic amendments failed on the Senate floor.
The Senate passed the full bill by a vote of 31-18.
What comes next for scholarships? What came before?
History might repeat itself at the Iowa Capitol.
Reynolds proposed the private school funding program and changes to Iowa’s charter school process in 2021. She used now-familiar lines in her 2021 Condition of the State address, rallying for “school choice,” including for those without the financial means to attend private schools.
Both chambers passed the proposed charter school changes, allowing private groups to create charter schools outside the bounds of the local school district. But the other half of Reynolds’ proposal – the private school half – faced challenges.
The Senate passed a bill on private school scholarships in the early weeks of last year’s legislative session. That bill, Senate File 159, allowed only students in underperforming districts to use state funds to transfer to a private school using some per-pupil funds.
The House considered the scholarships in a subcommittee, but never moved further on the proposal.
This January, Reynolds again called for parent choice in education.
The newly amended governor’s bill faces an uncertain future in the House, where lawmakers moved a different bill on school transparency, without scholarships, on Tuesday night. The House has taken little action on the private school scholarships this year.
‘Sexually explicit’ debate echoes early-session conversations
Debate over “obscene” materials has been a theme of the session, spurred by controversy over certain books present in school libraries. Some parents and a handful of lawmakers, including Senate President Jake Chapman, advocated for legislative change on the issue, including criminal penalties for teachers or librarians.
Sen. Sarah Trone Garriott, D-Windsor Heights, said rhetoric surrounding education allowed for the private school scholarships proposal to move forward.
“There has been a coordinated effort to stir up distaste for Iowa’s public schools. This year, we have seen an all-out attack on Iowa’s public schools so that we will give millions of taxpayer dollars away with no oversight, no accountability.”
The bill passed Wednesday would not include any criminal penalties for teachers or librarians that provide “obscene material.” Instead, it would define “sexual explicit material” as content that, with regard specifically to minors,
— “Appeals to the prurient interest in nudity, sex, or excretion,”
— Describes or depicts a sex act “in a patently offensive way,”
— Lacks literary, artistic, political or scientific value.
Parents would need to give written consent before a student could engage with the sexually explicit material. Schools would also be charged with prohibiting students from accessing sexually explicit material on school-owned devices, such as laptops.
Sen. Jim Carlin said the bill would allow parents to protect their children from philosophies or policies the parent may disagree with. Carlin, R-Sioux City, railed against schools for closing or requiring masks during the COVID-19 pandemic, and he criticized school library books that “could make a feral hog vomit.”
“I have far more grave concerns about a leftist agenda to indoctrinate and sexualize the identity of children than I do about parents,” Carlin said.