February 21, 2024

School choice a large topic at legislative coffee

Residents from several area counties were able to interact with State Representative Ray “Bubba” Sorensen and State Senator Amy Sinclair, Republicans from Greenfield and Allerton, respectively, on Saturday, Jan. 21 during a legislative coffee held in the basement of The Gathering Place in Greenfield.

Of all of the topics brought up, Governor Kim Reynolds’ education savings account (ESA) bill generated the most passionate discussion. It has since passed the Iowa House and Iowa Senate. It was on Reynolds’ desk Tuesday morning, and she signed it in a ceremony in the Capitol Rotunda late Tuesday morning.

Those who spoke up were not in favor of the Governor’s idea, which will provide Iowa students with $7,598 each year to use for private school tuition and associated costs. All public school students will be eligible to use an educational savings account or ESA starting in the 2023-2024 school year. Students currently attending private schools must meet income limits to qualify in the first two years of the program; all private students would be eligible in the third year.

Public school districts will receive an estimated $1,205 for each student living within the boundaries of their district who attends a private school, even if they have never been enrolled in a public school.

The Iowa Senate approved House File 68 early Tuesday on 31-18 vote. Three Republicans, Sens. Lynn Evans, Charlie McClintock and Tom Shipley, joined Senate Democrats in voting against the bill.

The Senate debate directly followed the Iowa House passing the legislation 54-45 at 9 p.m. Nine Republicans voted against the bill, along with all House Democrats. Similar legislation failed in the House the past two years.

Those who spoke up locally at the legislative coffee also weren’t in favor of the Governor’s idea.

Residents questioned the legislators on their concern that there haven’t been very many reports about State Supplemental Aid (SSA) thus far. SSA is a major driver in funding for public schools, and Iowa lawmakers must set that amount in the first 30 days of the session. Lawmakers are in week 3 of the session. Cost of living increases should be a major driver in the discussion, one resident said.

Sorensen said there has been discussion about SSA, it’s just now about, “where do we land.” A starting point being used for budgeting purposes is 2.5%, however he said that’s not necessarily where they are at for the 2023 session. That is the amount SSA was set at last year. Sorensen said that he has heard from superintendents in his district say that 3% is the lowest amount they would want, so he is setting his sights on that amount.

Sinclair added that Reynolds would like an additional 5% increase earmarked for teacher salaries. She also talked about the vast difference there is in cost per pupil across the state, and initiatives the legislators have tried that are designed to narrow that gap. One is targeted at helping transportation in rural districts, she said.

There was a question about the perceived rules change that legislators passed exempting any bill coming out of the new Education Reform Committee from going through the House Appropriations or Ways and Means Committees.

Sinclair said the process hasn’t been rushed, in fact it, “could have been eligible to be debated this past week in the Senate, but we chose not to. We chose to come out and talk to folks.”

The senator continued by saying that the ESA bill did go through appropriations in the Iowa Senate. She said the Legislative Services Agency (LSA) prepares numbers with the help of the Department of Education and Department of Revenue. They were taking their time to make sure figures are accurate, she said.

Sinclair said the claims that legislators are spending less and less “just aren’t true.”

Supporters of the ESA bill say that it will transform education in Iowa for the better and give families more choices for education.

Other topics of discussion included a nursing shortage and the issues that accompany it; immigration; Destination Iowa; infrastructure and economic development issues like broadband; and property tax reform. See coverage of these other issues in a future edition.

Iowa Capital Dispatch contributed to this report.

Caleb Nelson

Caleb Nelson

Caleb Nelson has served as News Editor of the Adair County Free Press and Fontanelle Observer since Oct. 2017. He and his wife Kilee live in Greenfield. In Greenfield and the greater Adair County area, he values the opportunity to tell peoples' stories, enjoys playing guitar, following all levels of sports, and being a part of his local church.