House GOP plan that brings 'school choice' to K-12 education advances

A packed room at the Iowa capitol Tuesday for testimony on a bill that would redirect state money for tuition and other education-related expenses at non-public schools through an Education Savings Account program. (Caroline Cummings)

A House panel voted Tuesday to advance a bill that would give families $5,000 in state money for tuition and other education-related expenses at non-public schools, despite outcry from opponents who say the legislation is unfair and strips public schools of funding that is already tight.

This bill would establish an Education Savings Account program, in which parents could use state money tax-free to cover tuition at private institutions or any other education-related expenses at a non-public schools. It would expand charter schools in the state by easing some rules for these schools, which supporters say allows schools to "innovate."

“It’s about about people making a choice about where their kid goes to school," said Trish Wilger with Iowa Advocates for Choice in Education, who testified in favor of the bill. "The bill goes a long way to give some parents a choice who otherwise don't have one," Wilger said.

Opponents denounce the bill, saying it takes money away from cash-strapped public schools across Iowa.

Rep. Mary Mascher, D-Iowa City, stressed that Iowans already have school choice in the state.

"Parents can choose to send their kids to a public school, private or home school but the state shouldn’t have to fit the bill,” Mascher said.

The bill comes on the heels of a K-12 funding plan making its way through the statehouse that would raise state aid for public schools by one percent, or 32 million dollars, next year, causing some to question how lawmakers could be discuss such a bill amid the state's budget woes.

“How can we justify funding an ESA program when we can’t even give public schools supplemental aid above the rate of inflation?," asked Terra Tarnorski, a parent in Des Moines.

Supporters of the school choice bill say the legislation gives parents the flexibility to choose the right school to meet the needs of their children and gives families a private school option they otherwise might not have had.

"The traditional public school system is the backbone of K to 12 education in this state but I also think it’s fair to say that there are unmet needs and at the end of the day that’s what school choice is really all about," said Mark Jacobs, founder and president of Reaching Higher Iowa, an education advocacy group seeking opportunity through education.

Opponents say the bill threatens to undermine Iowa’s public school system, which is among the top systems in the country.

The bill has to make it through a full committee this week in order to survive the first legislative deadline. If bills don’t make out a committee this week, they cannot advance any further this session.

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