What’s in Iowa’s new school voucher law

Gov. Kim Reynolds (R) saw fast action on her voucher proposal, which she signed into law Tuesday.
Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds (R) at the state Capitol in Des Moines, Iowa. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds (R) scored a major victory Tuesday when she signed into law a school-choice bill just over two weeks after proposing it.

The law makes state funding available for K-12 students to attend private schools. It allows families to establish education savings accounts to which the state will contribute $7,598 per pupil for the 2023-2024 school year for tuition, fees, and other qualified education expenses.

The law, known as the Students First Act, was Renyolds’s third attempt in as many years to pass a school voucher measure and the most expansive of those proposals.

Reynolds’s 2022 proposal sought to provide $5,360 for 10,000 scholarships. But House GOP leaders gave up on the proposal in May due to a lack of Republican support.

To help get the bill across the finish line, Reynolds endorsed the primary opponents of four incumbents who opposed her bill last year. All four of Reynolds’s picks won.

In a press release upon signing the bill, Reynolds praised the state’s public school system but said it was important to offer an option to attend private schools to those who want it.

“For some families, a different path may be better for their children,” Reynolds said. “With this bill, every child in Iowa, regardless of zip code or income, will have access to the school best suited for them.”

Reynolds argued that she wants to empower parents, who are best suited to determine what educational environment their child needs to thrive. Beyond just educational factors, Reynolds said that other reasons for switching schools could arise from parents’ desire for their child to attend a religious school, to help kids that have been bullied, or have special needs that cannot be accommodated in public school.

“Regardless of the reason, every parent should have a choice of where to send their child and that should not be limited to families who can afford it,” she said in her Jan. 10 Condition of the State address, when she unveiled the proposal.

Her victory comes as speculation swirls that she is a potential GOP vice presidential pick in 2024. Her recent rhetoric echoes that of other GOP governors who are possible presidential candidates, such as Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.

Iowa Democrats were critical of the package, including that it does not cap the number of children who can participate. They also raised concerns about the cost and the effect on rural schools, which already need help with enrollment due to the smaller populations they serve. According to the state’s Legislative Services Agency, Iowa will spend $879 million over the next four years to phase in the program and $345 million a year once it is fully phased in.

Randall Bauer, a state budget director under former Gov. Tom Vilsack (D), said it is a farce for the governor to say that the program is about choice because private schools are not required to accept those that apply, unlike public schools.

“They’re not going to take special needs students, they’re not going to take marginal students,” Bauer said. “For those people, they don’t have a choice because they’re not going to get their kids into those schools. So the choice issue is just wrong.”

Rather than helping parents change schools, Bauer said the program rewards parents who have already decided to send their kids to private schools.

“It should be a carrot, not a cookie,” Bauer said. “With a carrot, you are incentivizing somebody to do something. If you’re just rewarding them for something they’re already doing, a cookie, that’s not good public policy.”

He also said the cost would make it more difficult for public schools to compete for state funding.

“If you suddenly have a new $300 million requirement, what’s going to happen to the public schools there, they have to compete with everything else,” Bauer said.

Highlights of the law are below:

  • The law will be phased in over three years.
  • All incoming kindergarteners and all public school students will be eligible beginning year one with the start of the 2023-2024 school year.
  • Eligibility for families of children currently enrolled in accredited private schools will be based on income over the first two years.
  • During the 2023-2024 school year, private school students with household incomes at or below 300% of the federal poverty level, currently $83,250 for a family of four, are eligible.
  • The state estimates that roughly 14,000 students would be eligible for the program in the first year, which would cost the state an additional $106.9 million.
  • In the 2024-2025 school year, private school eligibility will include families with household incomes at or below 400% FPL, currently $111,000 for a family of four.
  • All students will be eligible for the program in the 2025-2026 school year, regardless of income.
  • Public schools would receive $1,200 for any student who leaves a public school district for a private school and for any student who lives in the district and attends a private school.