The Weekly Rocket by Senator Rocky De Witt (January 23, 2023)
The Weekly Rocket by Senator Rocky De Witt
After a three-day weekend to observe the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, the legislators gaveled back in on Tuesday. The legislative week may have been shorter, but we still packed lots of business into the days we were at the Capitol. We saw the introduction of many bills, held subcommittees on others, and even began to see legislation passing out of committees. I became chair and vice-chair on several study bills, so I am quickly learning the processes. In addition to our work on legislation, we hosted the Iowa Youth Conference for their Day on the Hill.
On January 13, I was proud to see Governor Reynolds be sworn in as governor for another term. It was a great way to end a week full of speeches and ceremonies, and listen to her talk about her passion for Iowa and its people.
One of her big priorities has been moving through the legislature. School choice has been a big issue over the last several years, and was a major issue in the November election. We will start looking at some of Gov. Reynolds’s other priorities soon and work on other important policies to improve Iowa education, workforce and government efficiency. Constituents all across my district have already begun reaching out with questions and comments on some of the bills being filed.
Every year, veterans from all over Iowa come to the Capitol. Many of these men and women gathered in the rotunda on Wednesday and listened to speeches from various officials, including Governor Reynolds, Major General Benjamin Corell, retiring Adjutant General of the Iowa National Guard, Todd Jacobus, the Commandant of the Iowa Veterans Home, and the House and Senate Veterans Affairs Committee chairs, Senator Jeff Reichman and Representative Chad Ingels. Many spent time in front of one particular wall in the Capitol rotunda. The wall with the names and pictures of Iowans who died in the line of duty in the War on Terror. We are grateful to all of them for their service and sacrifice for this great country.
Students First Act Advances
This week the Senate Education and Appropriations committees passed Senate File 94, commonly known as the Students First Act. Governor Reynolds spoke at length about this bill in her Condition of the State speech last week. After passing both committees the bill is now eligible to be debated by the full Senate.
The Students First Act empowers all parents and students to choose the public or non-public school to best fit their educational needs. It establishes an Educational Savings Account (ESA) for parents to pay for private school tuition, tutoring or other non-public school related expenses. The plan phases-in over a three-year period. Once fully implemented all students will be eligible for an ESA. Currently, only families with significant financial means are able to afford to pay their income, sales, and property taxes while also paying thousands of dollars per year in private school tuition. This bill opens school choice to low- and middle-income families as well.
The governor’s bill also includes over $1,200 per student in new funding for public schools with resident students attending a non-public school. Public schools will keep their property tax revenue and they will receive an estimated $1,200 for each resident student opting for private education with an ESA. SF 94 also creates an opportunity for nearly a hundred million dollars statewide, currently unused in restricted accounts in public schools, to be used to raise teacher pay.
Experiences in other states with substantive school choice programs show improved student achievement in both public and non-public schools. Eleven peer-reviewed studies show improved achievement from students in private schools, and 25 studies show improved achievement from students in public school in states with school choice programs. Furthermore, students in rural schools also see improved achievement.
Some critics say school choice will take funding away from public schools. This claim is quickly countered by the record of increases for K-12 schools over the last several years. Since 2017, cumulative increases in K-12 spending is roughly $1.5 billion. Next year, Iowa schools are expected to receive over $17,000 per student, for an average of over $340,000 for a classroom of 20 students, and a total of $8 billion statewide from all sources. Despite Democrats’ claims of defunding education, the only time K-12 funding has been cut is when Democrats controlled all of state government in 2009-2010.
Legitimate polls of Iowa voters have consistently shown strong parental support for school choice for all reasons but especially for bullying, special learning needs, and tutoring. Governor Reynolds also made school choice a centerpiece of her campaign and she won by one of the largest margins in an Iowa governor’s race in the last 40 years. Iowans have shown their support of school choice and after this week, it is several steps closer to becoming a reality.