It won’t be long before empty parking spaces near the Iowa Capitol will be as hard to find as a compromise between Democrats and Republicans.
The Legislature returns to Des Moines on Jan. 9, more firmly in Republican control than it was on May 24, when this year’s session ended.
With their strong showing in the election this month, Republicans can be expected to pick up where they left off six months ago. For people living in rural Iowa, one issue of deep concern on Gov. Kim Reynolds’ to-do list is the creation of taxpayer-financed vouchers to help parents pay for tuition to private K-12 schools.
During the Legislature’s sessions in 2021 and 2022, Reynolds pushed, without success, for the voucher program, which she prefers to call a scholarship program or a way to provide parents with school choice.
The issue is close to the hearts of many rural Iowans, both D’s and R’s, because they are concerned about the health of their local public school. Rural Iowa is losing its population, and the quality of the local schools is a key factor in the ability of communities to attract young families and keep their children close to home after graduation.
People in rural Iowa should fasten their seat belts because the Legislature’s 2023 session could make a swift decision on private school vouchers.
Reynolds has been stymied in the past by her own House Republicans who dug in their heels on the issue. But in the days leading up to the primary election in June, she took the unusual step of announcing her support for Republican challengers running against a handful of incumbent House Republicans who oppose vouchers.
One of Reynolds’ prominent targets for retaliation was Rep. Dustin Hite, a Republican from New Sharon, who chaired the House Education Committee. He opposes vouchers because his constituents are concerned about the effect of vouchers in places like Keokuk County, where the three public school districts each have fewer than 600 students.
Hite was one of a handful of incumbent Republican lawmakers who lost in the primary election after Reynolds came out in support of their opponents.
Rep. Dennis Bush, a Cherokee Republican, was another Republican opponent of vouchers who was unseated in the primary. He told reporters after his defeat, “I do think it will have a chilling effect on any future legislation the governor proposes if legislators are trying to represent their districts when they know the governor might come out just because they didn’t vote for her proposal on one bill.”
Rep. Jon Thorup, a Republican from Knoxville, was another lawmaker who was targeted by Reynolds. He told reporters that without significant changes, private school vouchers will eventually cause the closing and merger of some smaller school districts.
The voucher proposal would have real-world consequences for public schools.
Under the plan debated this year, $55 million in state tax money would be diverted from public K-12 schools and would be channeled into private schools. It is hard to spin this as a plus for public schools.
Parents would receive scholarships of about $5,500 for each child who enrolls in a private school, instead of a public school. The proposal would cap the number of scholarships at 10,000. But do not be fooled into thinking that is the maximum number of vouchers that would be handed out.
There are about 40,000 students in Iowa’s private K-12 schools. No one believes the parents of those kids would not pressure lawmakers to expand a voucher program to make the $5,500 scholarships available to their children, too.
You can look at what occurred in Ohio to see how a voucher program would expand. In Ohio, that state’s voucher program began in 2005 with 3,000 students. It now provides 69,000 students with private-school vouchers that cost taxpayers $628 million annually.
The governor likes to talk about giving parents “school choice” for their children. That is a commendable goal.
But not every parent can afford private school tuition, even with a voucher from Iowa taxpayers. In 42 of Iowa’s 99 counties, there are no private schools, and the vouchers could not be used for transportation costs.
There is another important factor that affects the true availability of “school choice.” Unlike public schools, private schools are not required to accept every student who wants to enroll. Private schools are not required to operate with the same openness and transparency that public schools must have.
Private schools can pick and choose which students they admit. That can be based on the prospective student’s religion, the child’s sexual orientation, their ability to speak English, the presence of intellectual disabilities, or because of behavioral problems.
Siphoning $55 million away from Iowa’s public schools to pay for the vouchers will have unavoidable consequences for the students who are left in those classrooms.
Iowans living in rural areas, whether they are red, blue or purple, need to reconcile themselves with what the future holds — unless they can find rural Republican lawmakers willing to take a principled stand the way Dustin Hite, Jon Thorup and Dennis Bush did.