School choice bill opens more education options for Iowa families

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Iowa students eligible to enroll in the 34 public schools identified under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act in 19 Iowa school districts could receive a “student first scholarship” to attend a nonpublic school instead, if SF 159 becomes law.

The bill passed the Senate in a 26-21 vote on Jan. 28 and was referred to the Education committee in the House of Representatives on Feb. 1.

The scholarships would be exempt from Iowa individual income tax, and funded by a General Fund standing unlimited appropriation beginning in fiscal year 2023. Expected reductions of the State General Fund revenue are $96,000 in FY 2023, $170,000 in FY 2024, and $205,000 in FY 2025, according to a fiscal note on the bill.

The bill also sets up a second route for the establishment of charter schools. A local school board could create a new charter school or transition a building into a charter school district, or a founding group not created by the school board could create a charter independent of the school.

Voluntary diversity plans, which five school districts currently use, would be repealed under open enrollment for school districts, according to the fiscal note.

The bill also expands both tax credits from $250 to $500 for classroom expenditures in Iowa elementary and secondary school teachers, and doubles the allowed Tuition and Textbook Tax Credit expense amount to $2,000 per qualified student

The bill additionally would make the credit refundable and extends the credit to students at private schools.

Americans for Prosperity Iowa State Director Drew Klein praised the education choices the bill provides families.

“There are lots of reasons that parents might decide that they want their student [at another school], and oftentimes the solution from government is, ‘Well, give us time. We’re working on those things,’” Klein told The Center Square in a phone interview.

“Parents don’t have time,” Klein added. “They don’t want to wait around for the system to get better. They want to put their kid where they’ll have the greatest opportunity right now. That is really, I think, the heart of why so many parents are looking for another option.”

Sen. Amy Sinclair, floor manager for the bill, said Gov. Kim Reynolds brought the bill to the legislature. Reynolds addressed school choice in her 2021 Condition of the State Address on Jan. 12.

“School choice shouldn’t be limited to those who have the financial means or are lucky to live in a district that’s confident enough to allow open enrollment. So let’s make choice an option for everyone,” she said in the address.

“We can do that by making open enrollment available in all districts and by allowing our communities more flexibility to create public charter schools where there is a need for an alternative,” the governor said. “And we should create education savings accounts for students who are trapped in a failing school; let’s give them another choice by making sure money isn’t their barrier. Make no mistake, it’s imperative that we have a strong public school system—which is why we have and will continue to prioritize school funding while many other states are cutting their education budgets.”

The 34 comprehensive schools, which “score in the lowest 5 % of Title I schools on the index score for all students and/or their graduation rate is below 67.1% ,” are listed on the Iowa Department of Education website.

The accountability index scores and Every Student Succeeds Act status were carried forward from 2019 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Burlington CSD, Davenport CSD, Des Moines Independent CSD, and Waterloo CSD each have at least three comprehensive schools.

Rural School Advocates of Iowa lobbyist Margaret Buckton expressed opposition to bill aspects in a YouTube address.

“If the charter is either new or revoked, your district can ask the school budget review committee for spending authority, which means property taxes, and in the first year of the charter, students may be counted twice, increasing the cost of state aid and property taxes,” Buckton said.

“For rural schools, a charter in your area could draw students and funding away from your public school and also teachers, as they will need teachers to provide whatever kinds of program the charter school is going to have. Both teachers and students are in short supply in rural areas, so we are against that provision.”

President Barack Obama signed The Every Student Succeeds Act, which replaced the No Child Left Behind Act, in December 2015.

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