Gov. Kim Reynolds’ address highlights private school scholarships, agency restructuring

by Robin Opsahl, Iowa Capital Dispatch
January 10, 2023

Gov. Kim Reynolds unveiled her latest private school scholarship proposal and plans for a huge restructuring of the state government Tuesday in her 2023 Condition of the State address.

Reynolds delivered her sixth address as governor to the most Republican-dominated Legislature of her time in office and one in which more than a third of the members are beginning their first terms.

“Through natural disasters, a pandemic, a nationwide recession and more, Iowa’s status as a beacon for freedom and opportunity has endured,” she said. “We’ve been recognized as the most fiscally responsible state in the country, we’re ranked in the top ten states to live in America, and we continue to be ranked the #1 state for opportunity.”

Reynolds was reelected to her second full term as Iowa governor in the 2022 election, defeating Democratic challenger Deidre DeJear.

Republicans also strengthened their trifecta control at the Iowa Statehouse, and party leaders in both chambers said they were ready to implement the governor’s agenda quickly. Senate Majority Leader Jack Whitver said the Senate is ready to hold a subcommittee meeting on Reynolds’ education bill yet this week or early next week.

“We are ready to get to work and hopefully make this agenda into law,” Whitver said.

Another stab at scholarship program

One of Reynolds’ biggest goals in 2023 is finally passing into law her educational savings account program, which had failed in the Iowa House the past two sessions. This year, her proposal would designate $7,598 for each student who wishes to transfer from a public school to a private school, while approximately $1,205 per pupil remains in the public school district where the student resides.

For the first year, the governor’s budget proposes nearly $107 million of the overall education budget will go toward the scholarship program, while nearly $3.7 billion stays in supplemental state aid.

For the initial implementation, the scholarships would only be available for all kindergarten students, and for students in grades 1-12 with families who are 300% or below the federal poverty level. That will be increased to 400% in the second year, and scholarship funds will be available to all K-12 students from the third year onward.

House Minority Leader Jennifer Konfrst, D-Windsor Heights, said having no income limit past the second year will make the governor’s proposal “even less popular” with Iowans.

“At the end of the day, this means that a millionaire family in Des Moines can put away their savings and use tax dollars to send their kids to private school while public schools across the state crumble,” Konfrst said.

Gov. Kim Reynolds is escorted into the Iowa House of Representatives, on Tuesday evening, Jan. 10, 2023, to give the annual Condition of the State address, at the Iowa State Capitol, in Des Moines. (Pool photo by Kelsey Kremer)

Reynolds also called for changes to Iowa law that she said will give educators more opportunities to improve schools.

“Improving our education system isn’t just about providing more resources,” Reynolds said. “Sometimes it’s about getting out of the way.”

The educational savings program Reynolds proposed also includes the ability for schools to divert funds from professional training programs toward teacher salaries. There is almost $100 million in unspent state funds for Iowa school districts designated for specific programs which the policy would allow localities to move toward teacher pay, she said.

Democrats oppose the governor’s proposal, arguing that it takes away funding from public schools which they say are already underfunded by the state.

“Iowans did not give the governor a mandate to defund public education and weaken our community schools,” Iowa Senate Democratic Leader Zach Wahls said in a statement.

“School choice” supporters praised Reynolds’ proposal, saying the program would give families more opportunities to pursue the best education for their children. Trish Wilger, executive director of the Iowa Alliance for Choice in Education, said the criticism that the plan will take away money from public schools are unfounded.

“There has never been a mass exodus from public schools in any other state that has enacted a robust ESA or school choice program,” Wilger said in a statement. “Despite their dire predictions, it will not happen in Iowa, either. Most parents will continue to choose to send their children to their neighborhood public schools. However, allowing school choice will make a meaningful difference for those children who will learn best in a different environment.”

Reynolds proposed two additional bills on education – one codifying “parental rights,” and another giving public school administrators and teachers more flexibility.

The Iowa Legislature considered a “parental bill of rights” in the 2022 legislative session as a part of Reynolds’ education proposal. The bill required schools to share all class materials and student records with parents, in addition to requiring parents give written consent before a student engages with any “sexually explicit material.” While the language for this year’s parental rights bill has not been finalized, it aims to define parental rights in law and require schools to increase transparency.

The educational flexibility legislation is meant to address issues that public school administrators and teachers have brought up. Changes include letting schools teach consecutive courses in the same classroom to eliminating requirements for schools to submit a “school requirement plan” to the state which the federal government also requires.

While the House did not pass the governor’s education proposal in previous sessions, House Speaker Pat Grassley said he felt this year’s proposals address concerns some legislators in earlier years brought up over public school support. There are also many new legislators this year, Grassley said, many of whom ran with Reynolds’ scholarship program as a key part of their platform.

“It does what I’ve said we’re trying to do, which is show support for private as well as public,” Grassley said. “And so I think you’re going to see more of that in a broader sense than maybe some of the original plans had the last few years.”

Revamping state government

Another goal for this year is eliminating waste and redundancies in state government to the tune of an estimated $215 million in cost savings over the course of four years.

The governor proposed consolidating Iowa’s 37 cabinet agencies into 16, and to eliminate several vacant full-time equivalent positions which are currently funded. No current state government staff will be fired or laid off under this consolidation program, the governor’s staff said, as it would only eliminate unfilled roles.

Attendees to Gov. Kim Reynolds’ Condition of the State address applaud during the speech, inside the House Chamber, on Tuesday evening, Jan. 10, 2023, at the Iowa State Capitol, in Des Moines. (Pool photo by Kelsey Kremer)

A consultant that has worked with Arkansas and Oklahoma was hired to help conduct a review of the state’s government structure, which staff said was the first comprehensive review since the Iowa farm crisis.

The estimated savings comes from consolidating offices and contracts and selling land, not budget cuts. according to the governor’s staff. The governor said she believes Iowa state employees do great work – but that the current system is cumbersome for both Iowans and state workers.

“I have a great team of directors, who are served by thousands of capable, hard-working public servants who care deeply about delivering for Iowans,” Reynolds said. “I’d put them up against any state in America. But that talent can’t meet its full potential when it’s hampered by a fractured organizational structure that’s run on autopilot for decades.”

The announcement of agency restructuring comes five months after the state’s Department of Human Services and Department of Public Health merged. Grassley said that last year’s merger proves that large organizations in state government can be consolidated successfully.

“I think that that’s really been a good roadmap that we’ll be able to follow,” Grassley said.

Konfrst said Iowans may not see any direct benefits from the consolidation proposal, and that the legislature should focus on issues like lowering living costs for Iowa families, funding public education and protecting reproductive health care access.

“The most important thing for me is, what’s best for Iowans?” Konfrst said. “Will they still be able to get the services they need, use the state government in the way that they deserve and not have to wait? I don’t know that Iowans will notice a difference here.”

Alongside reviewing the state government’s structure, Reynolds called for a review of Iowa’s administrative code. The governor said the state has many unnecessary and sometimes counterproductive rules that make the state’s economy less competitive. On Tuesday, she signed an executive order issuing a moratorium on new rulemaking, in addition to directing state agencies to review their existing rules.

“Only those that meet this standard will be reissued,” she said. “The rest will be repealed. When it’s all said and done, Iowa will have a smaller, clearer, and more growth-friendly regulatory system.”

Gov. Kim Reynolds gives the Condition of the State address to members of the Iowa Legislature inside the House Chamber, on Tuesday evening, Jan. 10, 2023, at the Iowa State Capitol, in Des Moines.

More funding for abortion alternatives, health care

Focusing on Iowa’s youth does not start in the classroom, Reynolds said, but when a child is born. The governor called for the Legislature to expand the state’s “More Options for Maternal Support,” or MOMS program, increasing funding from its current $500,000 to $2 million.

It’s the only piece of legislation related to abortion that Republicans have highlighted in the starting days of the legislative session. Further restrictions on abortion are newly legal after the U.S. and Iowa supreme courts found there was no constitutional right to abortion. But Reynolds and other GOP leaders have said they plan to wait for the Iowa Supreme Court to make a decision on the “fetal heartbeat” law, a six-week abortion ban, which is currently blocked from enforcement by injunction.

The MOMS program was signed into law last session, and provides grants to organizations which encourage alternatives to abortion. The goal for the current program is to have services in place before the next fiscal year, which begins July 1, 2023. The expanded funding would go toward both helping women navigate their pregnancies, Reynolds said, but also with encouraging fathers to stay involved with their children.

“It sends a powerful message: that a pro-life state is one that surrounds every person involved in a pregnancy — born and unborn, mother and father — with protection, love, and support,” Reynolds said.

Reynolds also proposed funding for four obstetrics fellowships for primary care doctors, to help address a lack of OB-GYN health care providers especially in rural Iowa. Reynolds also called for limiting damages in medical malpractice lawsuits, with a hard cap of $1 million non-economic damages in jury cases.

“This is the year that we must enact common-sense tort reform to stop the out-of-control verdicts that are driving our OB-GYN clinics out of business and medical school graduates out of state,” Reynolds said.

Brad Lint, Iowa Association for Justice’s executive director, disputed Reynolds’ claim, citing data from the Medical Liability Monitor which show Iowa OB-GYNs have the fifth lowest medical malpractice insurance rates in the nation, which are less than half the national average.

“Iowa health care providers enjoy some of the lowest medical malpractice insurance rates in the country,” Lint said in a statement. “… Stripping Iowans of their Constitutional right to trial by jury is dangerous and immoral.”

Apprenticeship support

That’s not the only health care training for which the governor hopes to increase funding. She also plans to increase funding for the state’s health care apprenticeship program from $3 million to $15 million. The program, which currently focuses on nursing apprenticeships, would add paths for emergency medical services, mental and behavioral health, and direct support apprenticeships.

The governor praised Iowa’s commitment to “work-based learning at all age levels.” The governor plans to create a state apprenticeship agency that will fall under Iowa’s Workforce Development agency. Neighboring states’ governors have announced similar initiatives, including Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly and South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem.

Reynolds’ speech, televised live by Iowa PBS, is available to watch online. Her budget plan is on the Department of Management’s website.

Luke Clausen contributed to this report.

Iowa Capital Dispatch is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Iowa Capital Dispatch maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Kathie Obradovich for questions: Follow Iowa Capital Dispatch on Facebook and Twitter.

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