GOP lawmakers approve governor’s ‘school choice’ plan and Reynolds will sign it into law today

DES MOINES — Most Republicans in the Iowa legislature have voted for Governor Kim Reynolds’ top 2023 priority — a bill that will provide state-funded accounts for the parents of private school students.

After five and a half hours of debate, the bill cleared the House on a 55 to 45 vote on Monday night. Senators debated in earnest for about three hours, passing the bill just before 12:30 this morning on a 31-to-18 vote. Reynolds plans to sign it into law later this  morning.

Republican Representative John Wills of Spirit Lake opened Monday’s House debate by saying the bill is about freedom. “The parents and the child are the customers in this scenario. They deserve a choice on where their child goes,” Wills said.  “…If the current public school isn’t working for a child and those parents want to have a choice, that’s what this bill’s all about.”

Representative Steven Holt, a Republican from Denison, says state funds will now follow a child to the school that best fits their needs. “If we are to improve education, it is past time to fund our students, not the education establishment,” Holt said. “We can support public education and public teachers, while also embracing positive change.”

Representative Skyler Wheeler, a Republican from Hull who backed the bill, says public school parents got frustrated during the pandemic and asked for this alternative.   “This is about students, it’s not about systems,” Wheeler said, reciting a theme from the “school choice” movement. “And tonight, in historic fashion, the state of Iowa is going to uphold and uplift every family in this state.”

Representative Sharon Steckman of Mason City joined all her fellow Democrats in voting no on the bill. Steckman during House debate read emails that she had received from parents of children who were turned away from private schools.  “As Christians, we tried to enroll our son at the Des Moines Christian School as a kindergartener. We were later told that he could not attend because he was the wrong kind of Christian. That is their right as a private school, but why should public money fund discrimination? They also unenrolled our friends’ son because he was diagnosed with dyslexia, and they wouldn’t help him. Taxpayer education money should fund all students, not pick and choose.”

Steckman says the bill will put rural schools at a disadvantage and benefit urban districts.  “The large population centers stand to benefit the most from this bill. Ten counties should receive, according to one publication, $177.4 million a year because of this bill, and they are not rural counties. 42 rural counties with kids and families will lose out.”

Steckman says the state should be providing better financial support for their public schools and not be spending money on private schools. “I would ask you to please do the right thing by our public schools if you would just fund them at least to the rate of inflation, they could do wonders for our kids, they just need our help and support.”)

Jane Bloomingdale of Northwood was one of nine Republicans in the House to vote against the bill while the rest of the delegation serving north-central Iowa — Shannon Latham, Henry Stone, Mark Thompson, Charley Thomson and Pat Grassley in the House; as well as Waylon Brown, Dennis Guth, Sandy Salmon, and David Rowley in the Senate, all Republicans — voted yes. 

Reynolds held a private ceremony in her formal office Monday to mark the start of “School Choice Week” and plans to sign her bill into law at 11:00 AM this morning. 

(Reporting by Radio Iowa’s O. Kay Henderson and KGLO news director Bob Fisher)