Gov. Kim Reynolds, speaking Friday at a conservative think tank in Washington, D.C., said her private school scholarship program could encourage changes in Iowa’s public school system.
The governor held a Q&A at the Cato Institute while in town for the National Governors Association winter meeting. Other governors were meeting with President Joe Biden at the White House on Friday.
Reynolds emphasized the expansion of public funding for private schools in Iowa with the ESA program signed into law last month. The law provides Iowa students with $7,635 to use for private school tuition and associated costs. She also touted the focus in the Iowa Legislature this session on school books, LGBTQ material and teaching styles.
The Cato Institute’s Neal McCluskey, director of the Center for Educational Freedom, asked if the ESA program was a way to avoid conflicts over what’s being taught in public schools.
Reynolds said Iowa has “done both,” with “critical race theory” legislation passed in 2021 and this year’s pending legislation requiring written parental consent for schools to use different pronouns and names for students than they were given at birth.
The governor said schools and staff sometimes “find a way around” these restrictions to continue the practices lawmakers want to stop. But the ESA program could financially pressure schools to stop these practices, she said.
“I don’t mean this in a negative way, sort of, but they understand money,” Reynolds said. “And so, you know, we’re per-pupil funding for the schools … in the one school where they took the parents out of their child’s education, they’ve had – it’s a larger school – but I think between 200 and 300 have already made the decision, parents have made the decision to leave that school district.”
School districts will lose roughly $7,600 per student who leaves a public school and enrolls in a private school using an ESA. But the law provides school districts $1,200 for each student attending a private school in the district. The law also allows school districts to reallocate unused categorical funds for teacher salaries help rural school districts stay competitive.
The Cato Institute named Reynolds the nation’s most fiscally responsible governor last year.
Democratic leaders said the governor’s event Friday shows that Iowa Republicans are in “lockstep” with Washington, D.C., Republicans, Senate Minority Leader Zach Wahls said.
“That is why people from Washington, D.C., have flown to Iowa to take selfies with the governor behind the Iowa Senate on the night that vouchers passed,” Wahls said. “And why they bankrolled challenges to some Iowa Republicans in both the House and the Senate who opposed this plan.”
The ESA program failed to pass in the House in previous legislative sessions, despite Republicans holding a majority. Reynolds supported primary candidates challenging GOP incumbents who had previously opposed the bill. But she said the biggest reason why the private school scholarship program succeeded this year was because the COVID-19 pandemic was a “pivotal point” for many parents to see what’s going on in public schools.
The governor said many parents were frustrated by the switch to fully remote learning, and that data has shown students suffered learning setbacks during the pandemic. The parents who opposed reopening schools were those able to afford additional educational resources for their children, she said, referring to parents in school districts involved in a lawsuit challenging the state’s in-person learning requirements.
“The parents that were in that school that had sued to stay closed, had the financial resources were able to put their child someplace else,” Reynolds said. “So they weren’t impacted by not being in the classroom, not having a safe environment to learn, not having a hot meal, you know, which a lot of the kids didn’t.
“And, you know, I just fundamentally disagree that — that option for parents to decide what is the best environment for their child to learn and be the best that they can be — can only be afforded to families that have the financial means to do that.”
But House Minority Leader Jennifer Konfrst, D-Windsor Heights, said the ESA program is not helping Iowa families.
“The governor continues to leverage the legislation that she’s been able to get passed to help build her national profile,” Konfrst said.
She said the event was “another example of how kids aren’t really anywhere near the conversation here. It’s really about passing things and claiming victory, doing the victory lap and supporting, you know, corporate and special interests who want this legislation.”