Speaker Grassley says the governor’s school voucher program won’t pass this year

Jordan Sellergren/Little Village

Gov. Kim Reynolds’ attempt to pressure the Iowa Legislature into passing a bill that diverted public schools funds to private schools has failed. The governor made the creation of a school voucher program using education savings accounts one of her top legislative priorities this year, but on Monday morning Speaker of the Iowa House Pat Grassley told reporters at the State Capitol, “When it comes to the school choice bill that the governor proposed, it doesn’t look like we’re going to be able to put the votes together in the House this year to pass that.”

The bill passed the Iowa Senate in March with every Republican except one supporting it, and all the chamber’s Democrats, and Republican Annette Sweeney of Alden, voting against it. The bill had not advanced to a floor vote in the Iowa House because some Republicans from rural districts joined all the House Democrats in opposing it, guaranteeing it would fail.

The effort to pressure more House Republicans to vote in favor of the governor’s plan has led to the Iowa Legislature remaining in session, even though it has done little since the end of April.

“It’s ridiculous that we had to wait this long for a bill that we all knew wasn’t going to pass, because Iowans don’t support school vouchers, and neither does the House of Representatives,” Rep. Jennifer Konfrst, a Democrat from Windsor Heights and House Minority Leader, said. “So the only people who seem to want this are the Senate and the governor, and we’re glad that it died because it’s not good for Iowa kids.”

“Only 2 percent of Iowa kids would have benefited from this scheme and we need to focus on the 498,000 kids who go to public schools in the state of Iowa. So it’s great news. It’s a victory.”

The governor’s plan faced opposition from school districts around Iowa, especially in rural areas where school leaders were concerned that redirecting public funds to private schools would further diminish funds and resources available to their schools.

Gov. Kim Reynolds reacts to applause during her 2021 Condition of the State address. — video still

This was the second consecutive year that the governor declared her education savings accounts program a top priority in her Condition of the State speech, only to have it fail in the House because Democrats and rural Republicans opposed it. Although the plan has remained largely the same, with some additional funding included for rural school districts in hopes of attracting more votes, the reasons Reynolds gave for it have changed.

In her 2021 Condition of the State speech, Reynolds said the program was needed to assist “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.

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.” The governor and her allies in the legislature pushed the idea that Iowa public schools are promoting the wrong values. One supporter who testified during a House subcommittee meeting summed up this approach by saying she believed public schools don’t “teach our kids to love their country, to love each other and to love their god.”

Changing the stated reason for the school voucher program didn’t increase public support for it. In an Iowa Poll published by the Des Moines Register in March 2021, 49 percent of respondents opposed using public school funds to pay private school tuition, and 43 percent supported it. An Iowa Poll published this March found that opposition had grown to 53 percent and support had dropped to 41 percent.

In addition to pressuring Republican leaders to keep the legislature in session for almost a month past its usual end date, Reynolds also took the extraordinary step of publicly opposing the reelection of one of the House Republicans who doesn’t support her plan.

Last week, the governor issued a written statement endorsing Barb Kniff McCulla of Pella, a business owner and first-time candidate, challenging incumbent Rep. Jon Thorup of Newton for the Republican nomination in Iowa House District 37.

The school voucher program is not the first priority Reynolds listed in a Condition of the State speech that ultimately failed to pass in the legislature. In her 2019 speech, the governor declared one of her major legislative goals to be the passage of a constitutional amendment that would stop Iowans convicted of felonies from automatically losing the right to vote.

“I don’t believe that voting rights should be forever stripped, and I don’t believe restoration should be in the hands of a single person,” the governor told lawmakers in her January 2019 address.

The amendment passed the Iowa House, but the Senate didn’t act on it. Reynolds cited it as a top priority again in her 2020 Condition of the State address. Again it died in the Senate. But responding to pressure from criminal justice reform advocates in the wake of the murder of George Floyd — and the increasing national embarrassment of Iowa being the only state left that automatically disenfranchised people convicted of felonies — Reynolds signed an executive order in August 2020 that accomplished what the amendment would have.

At the signing ceremony for the executive order, the governor said she still wanted the constitutional amendment passed, so future governors couldn’t revoke the order. Reynolds did not mention the amendment in either her 2021 or 2022 Condition of the State addresses, has stopped citing it as a legislative priority and has not resubmitted the amendment to the legislature since it failed in 2020.

The governor has already made public statements saying she will continue to push for a school voucher program if it failed in this legislative session.

In his remarks to reporters on Monday, Speaker Grassley said, “Obviously we want to continue to work with the governor to get something achieved [regarding the school vouchers]. That’s been a big priority of hers moving towards next session. And we’ll work on that in the off season.”

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