Universal school choice is coming to Iowa.
Gov. Kim Reynolds signed the Students First Act Tuesday morning after it passed the House 55-45 on Monday and the Senate 31-18 in the early hours on Tuesday.
The bill, HF 68, will give Iowa families up to $7,598 in an educational savings account to spend on qualifying expenses, including private school tuition. That amount represents the state’s share of per-pupil funding in public schools.
The program is phased in over three years, having income limits for families during the first two years. But it becomes truly universal – available to all Iowa families with students regardless of income – in the third year.
“For the first time, we will fund students instead of a system,” Gov. Reynolds said just before signing the bill.
Iowa now becomes the second state, after Arizona, to pass a universal school choice bill.
Major support for the bill came from the Iowa Association of Christian Schools (IACS).
“We have been activating our members for grassroots efforts to connect with their legislators and let their voices be heard, and also activating our and empowering our board members, our teachers,” IACS President Josh Bowar told The Lion on Tuesday.
Bowar was also involved in helping the governor draft the bill and arranging for testimonies during legislative hearings.
“Last week there was a public hearing on the bill, and so we brought people to speak to share the importance of parental choice and education. And we’ve also been closely connected with the governor’s office as far as the drafting of the bill and just supporting her and her team in whatever advocacy efforts that they would need,” said Bowar, who also serves as head of school for Sioux Center Christian School in Sioux Center, Iowa.
Schools like Bowar’s are looking forward to seeing tax-paying families in their communities have more control over how their children’s education is funded.
“For many families, when we talk about choice, finances are a barrier. So our heart is that we would reduce any barriers that are there to be able to access Christian schools,” Bowar said. “You know, when you think about it, every one of our families is a taxpayer. Every one of our families is making the choice that they want their children in a Christian School.
“So it makes sense that the money that has been allocated to educate that child should be able to be spent or given to the school that the parent chooses best meets the needs of their kids.”
Critics of the bill have complained that it defunds public schools. But supporters argue the money doesn’t belong to one particular school or system.
“It kind of boils down to who owns the money and who’s in charge of the kids, and we believe that parents are in charge of their kids and that that money is allocated to educate children,” Bowar said. “It’s all about who knows their children best, and we believe that’s parents who should be in the driver’s seat for making those choices.”
Critics have also said that some Iowa students don’t currently have any public school alternatives to choose from.
“There isn’t a school, a private school, for every Iowa kid. That’s the point. Now, if you want to amend this bill, I’d be happy to defer for an amendment,” said Sen. Zach Wahls, D-Coralville.
But Bowar says the school choice program empowers parents in communities without alternative schools to start a new school.
“Now that this is available, we may have parents who are more motivated to say, ‘Hey, let’s start ourselves a Christian School. Let’s get accredited and let’s empower our neighbors to have that choice.'”
An amendment to the bill, introduced Monday, also provides additional support for public schools, including an allowance for school districts to share certain staff positions and funding access for certain leadership programs, the Des Moines Register reports.
Gov. Reynolds emphasized that the bill is not about private vs. public education but about parents and their children.
“Parents, not the government, can now choose the education setting best suited to their child regardless of their income or zip code,” Reynolds said in a statement before signing the bill. “With this bill, Iowa has affirmed that educational freedom belongs to all, not just those who can afford it.”