February 04, 2023

School choice discussion takes over first week of legislative session

Dunwell holds meeting to discuss the details of controversial Students First Act

Editor’s Note: This is the first of a two-part series on the school choice bill currently being proposed at the Iowa Legislature.

Iowa lawmakers are one week into the 2023 legislative session, and already the governor’s proposed school choice law is generating fierce discussions.

Several people packed into a senate subcommittee meeting on Jan. 12 in the state capitol to voice their opposition or support of the law. Fueling the discussion even more is a school choice ad paid for by a conservative political action committee and featuring Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds.

Known as the Students First Act, the proposal would permit education savings accounts — oftentimes referred to as school vouchers — to parents who choose to enroll their children in an accredited private school. Families will have $7,598, the state’s cost per pupil, to use for tuition, fees and other qualified expenses.

Opponents of the proposal argue it takes away money from public schools to go towards private/charter schools, provides tax dollars to religious instructional institutions and lacks public accountability. Others say the money allocated for the proposal is a waste of tax dollars.

Rep. Jon Dunwell, R-Newton, held Zoom call and Facebook Live meeting on Jan. 12 to give a summary of the legislative session thus far, a large portion of which was dedicated to the Students First Act. Joining him was Rep. Henry Stone, R-Forest City, the House majority whip.

Together, they disputed what Dunwell was calling “misinformation” about the proposal and the process in which it is considered for approval. The Jasper County Democratic Party said in a Jan. 11 Facebook post the proposal would be rammed through the House and Senate education committee in a day’s time.

Dunwell told Newton News there is still more deliberation to be done, but the bill could reach the floor by the end of the month. He does expect the bill to come early into the session. The Senate may be moving quicker than the House, too. Dunwell also said the bill is different than its 2022 draft.

“This is not the same bill as last year. The bill that came out last year was scrapped and done away with and they started with a fresh start,” Dunwell said. “They actually kind of listened to some of the concerns and questions that were out there and wrote a new bill in terms of that.”

ACCOUNT ELIGIBILITY CHANGES OVER THREE YEARS

According to information Dunwell shared on his Facebook page about education savings accounts, the funding will be allocated annually by the state. It is estimated Iowa’s public schools will retain about $1,205 per pupil in categorial funding for each student who resides in their district but chooses private school.

Education savings accounts/school vouchers will be available in different ways over the next three years. Reynolds said in her condition of the state address the plan will be phased in, focusing first on the families with the lowest income levels. In three years, she said, every family will have a choice in education.

For Year 1 (2023-2024), all kindergarten students, all public school students and private school students at or below 300 percent federal poverty level will be eligible. The rules are the same for Year 2 (2024-2025), except the federal poverty level threshold for private school students will be set at 400 percent.

By Year 3 (2025-2026), all K-12 students in Iowa regardless of income will be allowed an education savings account/school voucher.

Dunwell said any new students who enroll into a private school next year can be granted an education savings account/school voucher. Those funds that would have gone to the public school would follow the student into their account. Stone said public schools will still be able to count that student for certified enrollment.

“We’re not going to short any public schools on that count or the money that first year,” Stone said.

Another aspect of the governor’s legislation is providing funds back to the public schools. Dunwell said public schools now do not get money for the students who live in their district but are attending nonpublic school. The governor “is allowing those to be counted for some of our categorical moneys.”

DEMOCRATS SHARE DATA ON PRIVATE SCHOOL ENROLLMENT

The Jasper County Democratic Party shared information from the Iowa Department of Education’s log of certified enrollment of non-public schools in Jasper County. According to the 2022-2023 certified enrollment data, there are currently 195 students in Jasper County attending private schools.

• Newton Community School District: 92 students

• Lynnville-Sully Community School District: 70 students

• PCM Community School District: 21 students

• Colfax-Mingo Community School District: 8 students

• Baxter Community School District: 4 students

Two private schools reside in Jasper County: Newton Christian School and Sully Christian School. About 58 percent of the nonpublic school students in Jasper County attend these two schools.

Other nonpublic school students in the county attend Ankeny Christian Academy, Bergman Academy, Grandview Christian Schools, Mt. Olive Lutheran School, Pella Christian Schools and Peoria Christian School.

Jasper County Democrats say the Newton and Lynnville-Sully school districts would be impacted the most by the Students First Act.

Dunwell claims this isn’t so. In the case of Lynnville-Sully, he said during his Zoom call the school district would receive $1,205 per nonpublic school student. Which means, according to Dunwell, Lynnville-Sully would collect $84,350 from the state for those students.

But opponents of the school choice bill say public schools receiving $1,205 per student is still much less than $7,598.

Christopher Braunschweig

Christopher Braunschweig

Christopher Braunschweig has a strong passion for community journalism and covers city council, school board, politics and general news in Newton, Iowa and Jasper County.