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Iowa lawmakers approve private school tuition aid

Any parent, regardless of income, will be eligible for a taxpayer-funded tuition grant for a private school after the program is fully phased in.

DES MOINES, Iowa (CN) — The Iowa Senate passed legislation in the early morning hours Tuesday that will provide taxpayer-paid tuition for students enrolled in private schools. The House passed the bill just hours earlier and Republican Governor Kim Reynolds signed it into law Tuesday morning.

“What an amazing day for our children and parents,” a jubilant Reynolds said at a bill-signing ceremony.

“For the first time, we’re funding students instead of a system,” the governor said, speaking from the rotunda of the Iowa State Capitol in Des Moines. “We’re rejecting the idea that the answer to improving public education is simply pumping more money into the same system year after year without making significant changes. And we’re putting an end to the notion that competition is a zero-sum game.”

The legislation rocketed through the Iowa Statehouse just two weeks after Reynolds made it a priority in her Condition of the State address to lawmakers, in which she said her first priority this legislative session was “making sure that every child is provided with a quality education that fits their needs.”

All but nine Republicans in the House, where the party holds a 64-36 majority, voted for the bill. In the 50-member Senate, which is dominated by 34 Republicans, just three Republicans voted against it. All Democrats in both chambers voted no.

Republican lawmakers greased the legislative process, including by eliminating an appropriations committee review and preventing amendments from the floor during the debate that played out just over five hours in both chambers, at times simultaneously.

Many other states provide some sort of school choice option, and several states are considering similar state tuition support for students in private schools. At least two states – Arizona and West Virginia – have already made the move.

Iowa’s private school tuition assistance program will be phased in over the next three years, with the tuition grants beginning at $7,600 for students whose parents meet certain income guidelines, and eventually being made available to any parent regardless of income. Public schools will receive additional state funding to offset the loss of students to private schools.

Together, that will cost the state an estimated $879 million over the first four years, according to a fiscal analysis by the state’s Legislative Services Agency. Iowa now spends $3.6 billion on pre-kindergarten through 12th grade public schools.

Legislative Democrats argued that the private school funding will hurt public school in rural counties. Currently, 58 of Iowa’s 99 counties have an accredited nonpublic school, according to the Legislative Services Agency report.

Democratic critics also argue that using tax dollars to pay tuition in private schools will suck state resources from public schools.

“There’s nothing wrong with private education,” state Senator Zach Wahls, the Senate Democratic leader, said during the floor debate. “But the idea that we would take away resources from public education that are currently being used to improve how we educate our students is as out of touch as taxpayer dollars being used to pay a gated community’s private driveway or to build a country club that’s private, that we can’t all visit."

He added, "Why on Earth would we give private schools our taxpayer dollars when they don’t have the mandate, the commitment, the responsibility, and accountability to educate all of our students like our public schools do?”

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