Gov. Reynolds: Admin costs, accountability standards for ESA plan unknown until after it’s approved, ‘parental rights bill’ will only affect public schools (Updated)

Video still from Gov. Reynolds’ interview with KCCI.

Update: Despite the lack of details regarding how the governor’s program would be administered, the Iowa Senate approved the education savings account bill shortly before 12:30 a.m. on Tuesday. The House approved the bill earlier on Monday night. In the Senate, three Republicans joined all the Democrats in voting against the bill. Nine Republicans in the House joined Democrats in opposing it.


Gov. Kim Reynolds said in an interview on KCCI this week that she doesn’t know how much it will cost to administer the education saving account (ESA) program she’s proposed that will transfer public school funds to private schools.

“I don’t know yet what that is,” Reynolds said in response to KCCI chief political reporter Amanda Rooker’s question about administrative costs. “But we need, you know, that’s a component that we need and so that’s some of that stuff we’ll, you know, we’ll be able to give you that information once we go through the RFP [request for proposal] process.”

According to the governor’s office, the ESA program would cost approximately $901 million during its first four years. But that figure does not include the cost of paying a company to administer the program.

Proponents of ESAs like to distinguish them from older versions of school vouchers, which involved the state directly sending money to a private school selected by parents participating in the program. In an ESA, there is an intermediary step, where funds pass through an account created in a student’s name, before being sent to a private school. The extra step allows ESAs to get around prohibitions some states have on providing state education funds to religious schools.

Reynolds has said her office has been looking at how school voucher programs are administered in other states, and Iowa’s version will include standards to guarantee accountability and transparency in how it is run.

Rooker asked Reynolds if the accountability and transparency standards for ESAs are “something that lawmakers will see before they vote yes or no on a bill?”

“No,” the governor replied. She said the standards will have to be worked out during negotiations with whatever company is awarded the contract to administer the program.

Reynolds’ interview with KCCI was one of two about her plan to redirect public school funds to private schools that aired over the weekend. The other was with Fox News. It largely consisted of Fox & Friends Weekend co-host Pete Hegseth and Reynolds trading conservative talking points and praising school voucher programs, like the governor’s ESA proposal.

It’s not unusual for Reynolds to appear on Fox News, but interviews with Iowa media outlets have been rare over the last year. The governor has not held any news conferences since July, and only held a total of 10 in all of 2022. During the second half of last year, even as she was campaigning for reelection, Reynolds avoided speaking to newspapers and TV stations, preferring to confine her media appearances to friendly talk radio outlets.

During her KCCI interview, the governor said “a strong public education system” is important, but “it’s equally important, I think, that parents have the opportunity to make sure their child is in the best environment that sets them up to be the best that they can be and thrive, and parents are the best ones to make that decision.”

But, as Rooker pointed out, not all parents will be able to make use of ESAs. Private schools will not be required to modify acceptance policies in order to receive the money. That means they can discriminate against students with special needs and others with individualized education plans, families whose religious beliefs the school decides are inadequate, and LGBTQ families.

During the House Education Reform Committee hearing on the governor’s bill last week, Keenan Crow of One Iowa, a nonprofit that advocates on behalf of LGBTQ Iowans, testified about how common that last form of discrimination is in Iowa’s private schools.

“Back in 2020, for a different ESA proposal, we did a search of every non-public school policy that we could find, and out of the 181 non-public schools at the time, we found 176 policy handbooks,” Crow told the committee. “Out of those, which is basically all of them, we found that 75 percent of Iowa’s accredited non-public schools were willing to discriminate against LGBTQ Iowans in some way. Now that could have been explicit discrimination by writing into the policy that LGBTQ students, or those with LGBTQ families, are not welcome, or it could have just been a statement at the end that they reserve the right to discriminate against LGBTQ people should they choose to in the future.”

Rooker asked the governor what she would tell a family unable to attend a private school under her program because those schools can discriminate in ways public schools can’t.

“Well, I just don’t think there’s a lot of that happening out there,” Reynolds said.

Although Reynolds says the ESA program is based on the need to provide funds for parents regardless of the school they choose, her program does not make ESAs available to parents who choose to homeschool their children.

Asked why homeschooling families are excluded, Reynolds replied, “Yeah, well, you’ve got to cut it off somewhere.”

At the end of the interview, Rooker turned to the other plans for education reforms the governor has announced. The governor’s office has said Reynolds will be introducing legislation “defining parents rights in law, proposing to require transparency and set boundaries to protect Iowa’s children from woke indoctrination.” Rooker asked the governor what she meant by “woke indoctrination.”

“Well, you know, I think we’ve passed a couple of bills to just make sure that we’re not teaching critical race theory, that we’re not teaching students to hate this country and to judge people on the color of their skin, but to judge them on their character,” Reynolds replied. “I haven’t dropped my parental rights bill yet, we’re still working on it.”

Rooker asked if private schools receiving money through the ESA program would have the same “boundaries” imposed on them as public schools will.

“You know, they’re held to, you know, they’re, most of this would deal with public schools, with public schools right now,” Reynolds said. “So, you know, they would just be public schools.”

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