Gov. Reynolds’ bill to divert public school funds to private schools advances in the Iowa House

Jordan Sellergren/Little Village

It was expected that Gov. Kim Reynolds’ bill to divert public school funds to private schools would pass the subcommittee level in the Iowa House on a party-line vote, with both Republicans endorsing it and the one Democrat opposing it. But what wasn’t expected was the first speaker in support of HSB 672 during Tuesday’s hearing invoking a fast food jingle dating back to the 1970s.

“We do not want a Burger King education or a Burger King experience – meaning, letting people other than parents deciding, yes, to have it their way,” Rev. Keith Ratliff, executive director and elementary principal of Joshua Christian Academy in Des Moines, told the subcommittee.

“It ought to be ‘parents, have it your way, “ he continued. “Hold the pickles, hold the lettuce and let us choose where we want to send our kids. Why should a family be restricted because of their income as how they want their child educated? If we can live and die for our country, we ought to be able to choose where and how we want our children educated.”

HSB 672 is one of the few bills the governor’s office drafted this year. Reynolds is a longtime advocate for redirecting taxpayer dollars that would go to public schools to private schools, including religious schools. In her 2021 Condition of the State speech, Reynolds pushed for the legislature to create a program to use public funds to pay private school tuition “for students who are trapped in a failing school.”

The “failing school” rhetoric has been routinely used by advocates of diverting public school funds to private schools, or “school choice” as they prefer to call it, since the first large-scale school voucher program was created in Milwaukee in the early 1990s. Three decades of experience with voucher programs in Wisconsin and elsewhere has not yet produced evidence beyond anecdotes that voucher programs lead to improved educational outcomes.

But that began to change last year when the campaign against teaching students about systemic racism and other topics conservatives find uncomfortable was gaining momentum, advocating for school choice in order to respect the wishes of parents who don’t approve of public schools that don’t “teach our kids to love their country, to love each other and to love their god,” as one parent supporting HSB 672 said on Tuesday. This became an important talking point for Republican politicians following Republican Glenn Youngkin’s election as governor of Virginia in November 2021, after he campaigned heavily on respecting parental wishes in education and ridding schools of materials he considered inappropriate. Reynolds is following this approach.

In her 2022 Condition of State speech, the governor did not mention “failing schools,” but instead complained about schools that don’t recognize “there’s a difference between shouting vulgarities from a street corner and assigning them as required classroom reading.” She said her plan to funnel public school dollars was needed because “Parents matter” and their wishes about where to send their children to school must be respected.

Just as the reasons offered for school choice programs change, while the goal remains the same, so does the form by which public dollars will be sent to private institutions. The original voucher programs had the state paying money directly to private schools. Reynolds backs a new version known as “educational savings accounts,” in which the state directs money to an account for a student that parents may then use to pay private school tuition or to cover the cost of homeschooling or other approved expenses. Education savings accounts perform the same function as vouchers, but don’t involve a direct transfer from the state to a private school.

Under HSB 672, when a parent opts for an educational savings account, the amount that would have been spent on that student in public school is deducted from the school district and 70 percent of it is placed in the account for the parent to spend.

As opponents to the bill pointed out in detail during the hearing on Tuesday, HSB 672 exempts private schools from the oversight on how tax dollars are spent that all public schools are subjected to. Private schools would also be able to discriminate against children and families in ways other institutions receiving public funds cannot, including on the basis of a parent’s sexual orientation, a child’s religious beliefs and whether a student has a disability.

Aside from a lobbyist from the governor’s office, the proponents who spoke in favor of the bill fell into two categories: people employed by organizations who would have access to tax dollars if HSB 672 passes, and parents who were often emotional, several of whom citing the importance of including religion in their child’s education.

In addition to Rev. Ratliff, representatives of the Catholic schools of Des Moines and Sioux City spoke in favor of the bill. But not everyone speaking on behalf of a religious organization backed the bill. Connie Ryan, executive director of Interfaith Alliance of Iowa, told the subcommittee her group believes “strongly that taxpayer dollars should not be diverted to pay for personal choices.”

“Appropriating public dollars to further religious ministry and to support private schools that are allowed to discriminate and do not have to serve the needs of certain children is simply wrong,” she said.

Walter Blanks, Jr., and Nathan Cunneen also spoke in support of the bill. Neither has ever lived in Iowa. Blanks grew up in Ohio and is a resident of Texas and Cunneen is a lifelong Floridian, although they didn’t discuss where they live during their testimony. Both are employed by the American Federation of Children, an organization that advocates for school choice plans across the country, but neither mentioned they are employed to promote bills like HSB 672.

But the most striking testimony in favor of the bill didn’t come from those whose employers would benefit from educational savings accounts becoming part of Iowa law, without basic oversight of schools getting that money. It came from parents.

Mandy Gilbert, a parent of three school-age children in Johnston, grew emotional as she recounted withdrawing her daughter from public school, after the school district declined to take books Gilbert objected to off the school’s curriculum. Gilbert said parents needed to be able to use tax dollars to pay for private schools because public schools are “teaching controversial authors as history and social studies,” teachers assign reading material “obscene by law” and there are “educators asking students their preferred pronouns without parent’s knowledge.”

The subcommittee final speaker, Pam Moulde, who called herself “a homeschool mom from Pella,” had even more dramatic-sounding concerns about public schools.

“I have a friend who has a third-grader, who goes to school south of here, and she was offered cocaine in her schools [sic],” Moulde said. She added there is bullying in her friend’s daughter’s school.

Moulde said her friend “is desperate” to send her daughter to a private school, but can’t because she is “low income.”

“I realize we have some wonderful public schools, we have some excellent teachers,” Moulde said. “So why is it so many parents want out of the public schools?”

“As I attend school board meetings, I hear the same reasons over and over: the obscene materials, the litter boxes in bathrooms and social issues around identities.”

The litter box mention is a reference to a mean-spirited online joke meant to mock transgender student that has been misunderstood as being literally true by the more gullible consumers of rightwing memes.

The testimony by Gilbert and Moulde unintentionally highlighted a point made by Kelly Sawyer when she spoke in opposition to the bill.

Sawyer, a senior policy analyst for Common Good Iowa, said HSB 672 “panders to the emotional, narrow and uninformed attacks upon professional educators for whom transparency and openness already are required.”

“Choice is not an issue in Iowa and never has been,” according to Sawyer. She pointed to the fact that parents can already move students between public schools, and that the state legislature authorized the creation of charter schools last year. Iowa also supports private school tuition for families that make up to 300 percent of the federal poverty guidelines through School Tuition Organizations (STO).

The Iowa Department of Education describes STOs as “charitable organizations that raise tuition grant funding for eligible students who enroll in accredited nonpublic schools in Iowa.” For the first 14 years of the program taxpayers can receive a tax credit equal to 65 percent of the total they contribute to an STO. Last year, the state legislature increased the tax credit to 75 percent of the donation.

In previous years, the attempt to create a school choice program that redirects money from public schools to private schools has failed because of concerns of the impact on rural school districts. In this year’s version of the bill, the program would direct the 30 percent of funds taken from public schools that does not go into educational savings accounts and distribute it among rural school districts. But some critics, including both the Rural School Advocates of Iowa and the Iowa Association of School Boards, don’t believe that 30 percent will be enough to address the damage HSB 672 will do to rural schools. For that reason, among others, both organizations oppose the bill.

At the end of the subcommittee meeting, Rep. John Wills, a Republican from Spirit Lake, asked his two fellow lawmakers if they had any questions for the people who testified. Only Democrat Rep. Tracy Elhert of Cedar Rapids did.

Elhert, an early education specialist, said it wasn’t clear HSB 672 would accomplish the governor’s stated goal of making private school affordable to all families. Elhert asked Molly Severn, who testified on behalf of Reynolds at the hearing, what the average private school tuition in Iowa is. Severn couldn’t answer the question, because the governor’s office has not yet finished compiling that data. Severn said as soon as the governor’s office gathers the basic information on what has been top priority for Reynolds since 2017, she would provide Elhert with an answer.

HSB 672 now moves to the House Appropriations Committee. Its companion bill in the Iowa Senate has already been passed by a committee, and is awaiting a floor vote by the whole Senate.

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