School scholarships have been a hot topic of discussion in the Iowa Legislature so far this session with Gov. Kim Reynolds’ introduction of the Students First Act.
As part of the Students First Act—outlined in House File (HF) 68 and Senate File (SF) 94—$7,600 per student, per year, would be set aside in a newly-established Education Savings Account. The rate is equal to what public schools receive in state aid funding. Under the governor’s plan, however, the money is not limited to use by public schools.
If a student chooses to attend a private school, the family would apply for the funds to be transferred to that school and the public school would lose out on that student’s state funding. Reynold’s bill also includes a provision that would provide additional state funds for school districts for all students who live in the district, including students who attend private schools. Under her proposal, it is estimated that public school districts would receive an additional $1,200 for every student attending a private school in the district.
This shifting of funding from public schools to private schools through the Education Savings Account Program is likely to hurt rural communities.
Nationally, proposals like the Students First Act are often viewed with skepticism by experts in education. According to the National Rural Education Association, private scholarships reduce resources to rural schools and save money for parents in urban centers by paying for alternative, private education. Rural schools feel the impact of the loss of a few students more than larger urban schools due to their already smaller enrollment numbers.
Public schools educate 90% of students in Iowa. Approximately 75% are located in rural areas with little access to private schools, as shown in this Iowa Association of School Boards map. Half of all private schools in Iowa are located in just 11 counties.
The scholarship program will increase education costs for the state while reducing funding for public education. Many rural schools are already facing consolidation or staff and program cuts due to funding decreases and declining enrollment. Between 2008 and 2018, 126 rural schools closed in Iowa. If a small, rural school loses just a handful of students, it will lose valuable resources, placing greater constraints on the school budget. Public schools are the heartbeat of many rural communities. They provide employment, entertainment, and community gathering spaces, and help draw new families to town. When public schools struggle to remain open, it destabilizes the entire community.
The Students First Act is moving quickly through the Legislature. The bills have passed out of the Senate’s Education Committee and Appropriations Committee and the newly formed House Education Reform Committee. The House version bypassed the Appropriations Committee because of a new rule passed this session that exempts any bills assigned to the House Education Reform Committee from going through the House Appropriations Committee. This is an effort to rush the governor’s priority bill to a vote by skipping over the standard bill process. Both bills now await a full floor vote.
As debates continue, now is your chance to reach out and share your thoughts on the Students First Act with your senator and representative.