Iowa Senate Republicans have reignited the “school choice” debate with a new proposal to use some public money for private school education.
The bill would give about $4,000 of state money for each student enrolling in a private school, which is 60 percent of the per-pupil funding for public school students. Current private and homeschool students would not be eligible for the “education savings grants."
Republicans on a Senate panel advanced the bill Thursday to the full Appropriations Committee.
“This is a savings account controlled by the parents or guardians to make sure those children have an opportunity and that no family in Iowa should ever say that a private school is out of their league,” said Sen. Mark Chelgren, R-Ottumwa.
Trish Wilger with Iowa Advocates for Choice in Education said parents should be able to choose the educational setting that best fits their child.
“This doesn’t have to be an ‘us versus them’ issue,” Wilger said. “It’s about offering parents access to a variety of the high quality options that are out there.”
Public school advocates strongly oppose the bill, saying it will divert much-needed funding from the public school system.
Melissa Peterson with the Iowa State Education Association said she is surprised the state can find money for this while it’s facing revenue shortfalls and cutting state agency budgets.
“If we were able to find such resources, I would strongly advocate that those resources be designated to benefit the nearly half-million public school students as opposed to the approximately 34,000 current non-public students,” Peterson said.
There is currently no official analysis estimating the fiscal impact of the bill.
Other opponents argued the bill violates students’ constitutional rights.
Keenan Crow with One Iowa Action says some religious schools may discriminate against LGBT students.
“While they are completely entitled to do that—as was previously mentioned, they have exemptions within the Iowa Civil Rights Act that allow them to exercise their beliefs in that way—we don’t believe taxpayer funding should be propping up this kind of discriminatory behavior,” Crow said.
Public schools are barred by law from discriminating against students.
The lack of a publicly elected school board overseeing private school spending was also a concern among the bill’s opponents.
A similar bill in the House did not get enough votes to pass out of a committee earlier this year.
Senate President Charles Schneider authored the new education grant proposal.
“That’s something a lot of members in our caucus are passionate about,” said Senate Majority Leader Jack Whitver, “And we want to give that a fair hearing and see what that bill would look like.”
He told reporters Thursday the bill is going through Appropriations so Committee Chair Schneider can “keep an eye on the total price.”