Iowa lawmakers pass Governor Reynolds’ Students First Act

Photo: Getty Images

(Des Moines, IA)  -- On the first day of the third week of the 2023 Iowa Legislative Session, Governor Kim Reynolds’ Students First Act passes through both chambers.

After nearly ten hours of debate in the state legislature, lawmakers passed House File 68, which would give parents $7,598 per child annually to enroll their kids in private schools through an education savings account (ESA). The Students First Act also gives public schools $1,200 for each child enrolled in a private school.

"Let's talk about funding children," said Rep. John Wills, R-Dickinson, the House floor manager for the bill. "If a current public school isn't working for a child, and those parents want to have a choice, that's what this bill is all about."

Senate Democratic Leader Zach Wahls, D-Johnson, said Iowa's public education system used to lead the nation.

"Today, however, Iowa Republicans want Iowa to be more like other states, instead of other states being more like Iowa," said Wahls. "What on earth is going on?"

In a letter to Iowans, Reynolds said the bill will help “families who otherwise can’t afford a private school that may be a better fit for their children.” She said there are currently around 34,000 students enrolled in the state’s private schools.

In the fiscal note released Monday morning, the Legislative Services Agency (LSA) estimated around 43,400 students will be enrolled in private schools when the Students First Act is fully implemented in Fiscal Year 2027.

LSA: Students First Act will cost nearly $900M in the first four years

The LSA reports the measure will cost $344.9 million annually once fully implemented and $878.8 million in the program’s first four years.

The agency noted the bill “provides a new standing unlimited General Fund appropriation.”

The cost for the Iowa Department of Education to run the program is unknown, but LSA broke down how the program will be gradually implemented.

Photo: Legislative Services Agency

In Fiscal Year 2024, the following students are eligible for ESAs:

  • Kindergarteners
  • Students enrolled in a public school the previous year
  • Nonpublic school students with an annual household income below 300% of the Federal Poverty Level

In Fiscal Year 2025, ESA eligibility will expand to nonpublic school students with an annual income at or below 400% of the Federal Poverty Level. Year three eligibility in Fiscal Year 2026 will expand to all of Iowa’s students.

The LSA also said 58 of Iowa’s 99 counties have an accredited nonpublic school.

Iowa House approves rule change to clear hurdle

Before debate on ESAs, the state House passed the rules for the session. House Resolution 3 made several changes compared to last legislative session's rules.

Typically, all bills involving state spending are referred to the appropriations committee. The changes passed by the House made an exception for bills assigned to the Education Reform Committee during the 2023 Iowa Legislative Session. 

House Minority Leader Jennifer Konfrst, D-Polk, accused GOP representatives of contradicting one of their priorities: transparency.

"If transparency is the goal, what are we afraid of?" asked Konfrst. "We shouldn’t be passing legislation, or rules, that circumvent the process, or eliminate input from the public or each other.”

Rep. Sharon Steckman, D-Cerro Gordo, asked Rep. John Wills, R-Dickinson, why the change was necessary.

"We've been dealing this for three years now," said Wills. "We've got LSA's budget data, that very close, but not-partisan group that everyone in this room wants to hold onto. We've got their data estimates that are $4 million off the estimates where we were."

12 Republican lawmakers voted against HF 68

Reynolds' school choice bill passed 55-45 in the House and 31-18 in the Senate, meaning nine GOP representatives and three Republican senators voted against the measure.

All Democratic lawmakers and the following Republicans voted no:

  • Rep. Michael Bergan, R-Winneshiek
  • Rep. Brian Best, R-Carroll
  • Rep. Jane Bloomingdale, R-Worth
  • Rep. Chad Ingels, R-Fayette
  • Rep. Brian Lohse, R-Polk
  • Rep. Gary Mohr, R-Scott
  • Rep. Thomas Moore, R-Cass
  • Rep. David Sieck, R-Mills
  • Rep. Brent Siegrist, R-Pottawattamie
  • Sen. Lynn Evans, R-Cherokee
  • Sen. Charlie McClintock, R-Linn
  • Sen. Tom Shipley, R-Adams

After failing in the Iowa House two years in a row, Reynolds' proposal for ESAs is on her desk, awaiting her signature.

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