‘School choice’ to be Iowa governor’s major agenda item for ’23 legislature

DES MOINES — The 2023 Iowa legislature will convene next week and Governor Kim Reynolds has made it clear she’ll ask lawmakers to pass what she calls “school choice.”

 “It’s critical that we have a robust and strong public school system. It’s inherent for our economy and for our future, but it’s equally as important that parents have a say in where their child should be educated,” Reynolds said during an online forum in December.

Over the past two years, Reynolds has proposed a limited number of state scholarships for parents who enroll their child in a private school, but she’s now calling for EVERY parent to be able to get state money to cover private school expenses for their child. “I made this a key priority of mine throughout the campaign,” Reynolds said, “and it will continue to be one of my top priorities as we moved into the next legislative session.”

The previous proposals Reynolds made did not have enough Republican votes to pass in the Iowa House. Last June, the governor backed GOP primary candidates who defeated a few Republicans who were “no” votes.

House Speaker Pat Grassley says he’s optimistic something will pass in 2023.   “This was an issue that was a part of all of the campaigns in some form or another,” Grassley says. “Whether it was the governor’s race or every legislative race, this topic was brought up.”

Grassley has created an education reform committee that will consider the governor’s new plan, whatever it may be.  “Whether it’s phased in over time, whether it’s everyone at once — there’s a lot of kind of figuring out kind of what the impacts would be of the decisions we make, ” Grassley says. “We’re kind of at the point where we know that’s what we’re going to look at, but we haven’t necessarily had a bill set in stone.” 

Grassley says there’s a general blueprint, though.  “Ultimately the goal here is to make sure that every parent, literally every parent has that opportunity to choose where to send their kid to school,” Grassley says.

Senate Republican Leader Jack Whitver says he expects the governor to unveil a “substantial” proposal this month.  “That’s something that is important to us. It’s important to the governor. She campaigned on it,” Whitver says. “It was a top priority for her and it’s time for us to deliver on it.” Senate Republicans passed the governor’s more limited private school scholarship plans in 2021 and 2022.

Democrats in the House and Senate oppose spending more state tax dollars on private schools. Senate Democratic Leader Zach Wahls  says the idea is of grave concern to rural residents.  “Who have already seen the effects of cuts to school funding resulting in school consolidation and who I think are terrified that will accelerate under this voucher scheme, as families use a voucher to send their kid to a different school,” Wahls says, “and the challenge, of course, is that once you lose your school, you can lose your town.”

House Democratic Leader Jennifer Konfrst says 42 of Iowa’s 99 counties do not have a private school — so most rural families wouldn’t benefit from the governor’s plan.  “When I hear that the governor’s proposing school choice for every parent, there’s just simply no way that that’s possible,” Konfrst says.

Governor Reynolds will deliver the annual “Condition of the State” address on Tuesday, January 10th and she may unveil her major policy ideas during the speech.