Iowa Press convenes a group of Iowa political reporters for a roundtable discussion about the first couple weeks of the 2023 legislative session.
Joining moderator Kay Henderson at the Iowa Press table are Erin Murphy, Des Moines bureau chief for The Gazette, Stephen Gruber-Miller, Statehouse reporter for The Des Moines Register, and Dave Price, anchor and political director for WHO-TV in Des Moines.
Program support provided by: Associated General Contractors of Iowa, Iowa Bankers Association and FUELIowa.
Kay Henderson: Just two weeks into the legislative session, Republicans are already on the cusp of passing the governor's top agenda item. We'll talk about that with Iowa political reporters on this edition of Iowa Press.
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Announcer: For decades, Iowa Press has brought you political leaders and newsmakers from across Iowa and beyond. Celebrating 50 years of broadcast excellence on statewide Iowa PBS, this is the Friday, January 20th edition of Iowa Press. Here is Kay Henderson.
Kay Henderson: On this edition of Iowa Press, we have assembled a group of Statehouse reporters as the Iowa House and Senate are getting ready to debate major legislation next week. Let's meet them. Erin Murphy is the Des Moines Bureau Chief for the Gazette in Cedar Rapids. Dave Price is the Political Director for WHO-TV 13 in Des Moines. And Stephen Gruber-Miller is a Statehouse Reporter for the Des Moines Register. Gentlemen. welcome to the table.
Erin Murphy: Hello. Good to be here.
Stephen Gruber-Miller: Nice to be here.
Kay Henderson: Stephen, please just give us a brief overview, if you could, of the governor's what she calls school choice plan.
Stephen Gruber-Miller: Right. So this is the third year she's proposed a plan like this, and this is her most expansive version yet. It would over three years phase in to allow every family in the state to be eligible for $7600 per student per year to pay for private school costs like tuition and fees. Then another component of it is that public school districts would get about $1200 dollars in new money for private school students who live within their district boundaries. The governor's office estimates the whole thing would cost about $341 million each year once it's fully phased in.
Kay Henderson: The governor made a fairly forceful argument for this plan when she delivered the annual Condition of the State message to the legislature earlier this month. Let's take a listen.
Governor Kim Reynolds: This is no small feat, and it will take all of us and it will involve multiple efforts. But if your only idea is more funding, then you're not putting in the work and you're not really focused on our children.
Governor Kim Reynolds: This isn't about money. It's also not about public versus private schools. If that's how you want to frame it, if you want to pretend that this is a war between two different school systems, then you're not focused on our children.
Kay Henderson: So, Dave, if this is not about money, is it about politics?
Dave Price: Well, I think her critics would say this would if it's not about money, it's the absence of money because they're worried that over time this will starve the public schools. But, you know, going back, just look at what we witnessed last June after she failed two years in a row to get enough of her own party, at least in the House, to go along with the more limited plan, like Stephen mentioned. She did that primary purge and went out there and something that I've not experienced since I've lived in this state to actively seek to kick out members of her own party, those who had opposed her and she said private talks with some of the existing legislators to try to get them on board with this and this kind of go big plan that she's doing. It's just a different dynamic this session.
Kay Henderson: Erin, this really is no surprise because as the governor was campaigning last fall, she said this is her number one priority.
Erin Murphy: Yeah, she without a doubt, this was the thing that she talked about as much as anything, if not more than anything on the campaign trail. She said from --
Dave Price: But not this big, though.
Erin Murphy: No, that's exactly right. We didn't know what the plan was going to look like. But, you know, from the day that it failed last year for the second straight year, as Stephen pointed out, she said, we'll be back and try this again. But, yeah, that's, to Dave’s point, what's interesting about this is after two years of being unsuccessful in getting this passed, instead of trying to find a middle ground or tweak it or maybe scale it back, this is a dramatic expansion. It is significantly larger. This will at full implementation be available to anyone who goes to a private school.
Stephen Gruber-Miller: So she's essentially claiming a mandate from her election win where not only did she win by 19 percentage points, but Republicans expanded their majorities in the House and Senate. I think she feels emboldened to try for a big plan like this. And a lot of the legislators who won their elections won on this issue. Some of them did because it was an issue in the primaries for Republicans. So her critics would take issue with the idea that she has a mandate because the policy itself polling has shown from The Des Moines Register last year that a majority of Iowans were opposed to her previous version.
Dave Price: And her sell to the public has been that if you don't make a lot of money, you shouldn't be left out of this. So this will then help. Although, as we see the way this will be laid out those first few years, the primary benefactors are going to be families who are already in school. There will be -- you can get some new kindergartners in there. But those first couple of years, it's primarily going to be money going to families who are already there. And then down the road, as you pointed out, it's anybody. So she chose not to put an income cap on here. So at the end of the day, it's not really about just making it more affordable for people. It's a fundamental transformation of the system where anybody can use it.
Kay Henderson: Well, Erin, let's go back. The initial proposal that the governor laid out a couple of years ago was a plan that would apply to specific school buildings, not even districts, but buildings that were deemed not reaching federal education standards. And now we're here.
Erin Murphy: Yeah, it's remarkable. And it's grown each year. The interim -- the one that Stephen’s paper, the Register, polled on would have expanded the proposal to these scholarships, but only 10,000 and only for lower income families, as Dave described. Now here we are where it's literally available to everyone and at full implementation. And to also Stephen’s point about the polling -- that may be despite everything that happened in the elections and the mandate that the Republicans, the governor, feels she has, that may explain why we're seeing the bill move as fast as it is, because it is when you poll the broader public about it, it's not as popular an idea. And that may be why we're seeing it. It could go from bill introduction to state law in just a little more than two weeks, if they pass it this week, like we expect.
Kay Henderson: So, Stephen, is it likely to become law at the end of this coming week?
Stephen Gruber-Miller: That's a great question that I would love the answer to that and we'll get it in a few days. I mean, there's certainly a good chance and this is going to be the first vote that the -- we just had an election. There's a new class of senators. There's a new class of representatives. They've never served in office. This will be their first vote, you know, and it's going to cost, you know, over four years over $900 million. There has been a very, very quick process to get this to this point. There have been sort of shortcuts to get here through the committee process.
Kay Henderson: In the House.
Stephen Gruber-Miller: In the House and in the Senate they've done what's called a subcommittee of the whole. They've considered things very quickly without providing a ton of notice. There was a public hearing in the House, so the public did have a chance to comment. But, you know, the House, before they can pass this, they had to pass a rule change saying, hey, this doesn't need to go through the normal committee process where we would normally take a look at bills that spend money. There's also no estimate from the nonpartisan Legislative Services Agency, which looks at the fiscal impact of bills. So their priority is to get this done very quickly.
Erin Murphy: And our intrepid host pointed out last week that the upcoming week is National School Choice Week. So if that's important symbolically to Governor Reynolds to be able to sign that as a National School Choice Week celebration, that may be a carrot hanging out there for those folks.
Kay Henderson: Going to get a t-shirt with that. Thank you. Stephen, let's talk about the national implications of this for Kim Reynolds, but also the fact that it's not like Iowa is the only state debating this.
Stephen Gruber-Miller: That's right. Well, Iowa is one of, I think, relatively few states that hasn't had any version at all of this kind of school choice, as it's called. Other states have been sort of ahead of us on the curve here. And so the governor points a lot to Florida. She's pointed to Arizona as different states that have much more expansive programs that allow parents to spend this money on private schools. Indiana has one. And I think there are others being debated now, possibly Utah, Oklahoma.
Kay Henderson: And Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the brand new governor of Arkansas, in her first days in office, have said she wants to do this, too.
Stephen Gruber-Miller: So this is definitely a trend among Republican governors.
Kay Henderson: Dave, when you look at the regional governors, you've got governors to our north and to our west who are doing things that seem to have no influence on what's happening in Iowa.
Dave Price: Yeah. And I would go west and south to where you have Republican governors, new governor in Nebraska, and then the returning governor in in Missouri, Parsons. Both of them are talking about spending more money on public education and the Democrat up north in Minnesota as well. So that yeah, that's a different approach. While there is some of this action going on in some other Republican states where they're looking at more money for private schools, so you do have a few governors pushing more money in on the public side too.
Kay Henderson: All four of us at this table covered a public hearing at the Statehouse on, what day was it, on Tuesday night that gave members of the public a chance to come in and give 2 minutes of testimony to the committee, the House Education Reform Committee, considering this plan. Dave, you were there. What were your observations?
Dave Price: It checks a box, It is Tuesday at 5:00 in Des Moines. Right. So immediately it limits the amount of people who could go to such a thing. So anybody who lives out of town, it's almost impossible to go there. Anybody who has any kind of obligations. Decent crowd. Several hundred people, we've seen far bigger.
Kay Henderson: Right. When the Senate committee was considering a ban, a six week abortion ban, I mean, the place was flooded with far more people.
Dave Price: And that was during the day, middle of the day. Maybe anecdotally, it seemed like there were probably more opponents than those who were there in support. Now, if you watched from home, the public hearing, they lined it up, pro, con, pro, con, pro, con. So it all ended up even like that. And 50 people got to speak, you know, about a fourth of the crowd, whatever, fourth or fifth of the crowd. The thing maybe stepping back from this, if I might, the thing that surprised me about this is the lack of opposition to this in a show of force kind of thing. And I can appreciate that in our state where teachers can't go on strike, you're not going to do, for example, Monday, if they end up taking this debate up on Monday, we're not going to have tons of teachers showing up to protest. Right. Because they can't unless they're all calling in sick or something for the day, however that works. But I thought maybe the state teachers union or something might put together a rally in mass where we've seen kind of pre-COVID in a couple other states when it came to teacher pay that there might be some big show of force like, hey, this is not a mandate. You're going too far with all of this stuff. But I guess I was surprised that there really hasn't been that.
Stephen Gruber-Miller: Well, and we --
Erin Murphy: Sorry, go ahead, Stephen.
Stephen Gruber-Miller: Thank you. Well, we talked to the Democratic leadership on Thursday. And you know, they held a press conference. And their main point was we are not very persuasive to our Republican colleagues. We need people around the state to contact their legislators and speak out against this. But that seems to be, that's their call to arms. Like, you're right, we haven't seen a big organized event at the Capitol necessarily.
Erin Murphy: And the one thing I will say to that, I think there is high interest in this, whether it rises to the level of people feeling the need, feeling compelled to come to the Capitol or not. I can just say personally that speaking from my email inbox, I've been engaged on this bill much more than your typical piece of legislation. So there's definitely strong interest out there on this bill and people are tuning in and watching that very strong feelings about it.
Dave Price: But I feel the tenor of a lot of those is that it's a foregone conclusion that this is already figured out there will be a deal. It just hasn't happened yet.
Erin Murphy: Which could explain why people also didn't bother to come to Des Moines on a Tuesday night when they got to work the next day.
Stephen Gruber-Miller: Which is also fascinating because this is something that's been unable to pass twice in a narrower form.
Kay Henderson: So I'm wondering if, Erin, this plan, should it become law, will force legislators to continue increasing the per pupil money that they vote on for public schools, because that's going to impact how much private school parents are going to get in these educational savings accounts.
Erin Murphy: That is among -- there are some very big financial questions about this moving forward. And you're right that at full implementation, $340 million a year could go -- estimate -- and even a fellow Republican of the governor's said in that Senate committee that they rushed through that Stephen was describing said he said that may be a conservative estimate. They were waiting for the nonpartisan LSA to give us their estimate -- it could be even higher --
Kay Henderson: Legislative Services Agency.
Erin Murphy: Yeah.
Stephen Gruber-Miller: Which we may or may not get before the vote occurs.
Erin Murphy: Before we even have the -- right. So that's a lot of money annually and that's a lot of money that they're going to be saying this is going strictly to private schools. So are you going to also do the same and be similarly helpful to public schools with the SSA increases each year? They're talking about property tax reform that in one proposal would add another $100 million to the state's general fund every year. Remember, we just did a huge tax bill that at its full implementation in three or four years will take $2 billion out of the budget every year. Revenues are coming down and spending is going up and there may be a collision there at some point in the near future.
Dave Price: I think there's a, I know you don't like to talk about yourself, but I'm going to turn this on you, if I may. You played a little clip of the governor from her speech, but also in your interview this past week --
Kay Henderson: Radio Iowa interview, yes.
Dave Price: -- she talked about, you know, how much money, what percentage of your budget is enough to spend on education. Right. And she's made this point several different ways. I'm curious, going forward here, let's say this passes. Fundamentally, we'll see how they end up funding the SSA like you're talking about. But she's pitched two and a half percent, right. So in terms of everyday lives here, you get a two and a half percent raise at work. Inflation has now gone down, but it's six and a half. So you're falling behind. You've been falling behind. That's what schools have been saying. Now, there are other sources of money coming in here, but they are saying that it's like death by a thousand paper cuts. And this, how this all shakes out would appear to them that public schools are going to lose more money. There are some other things to complicate this, but down the road they may lose more funding. And you wonder if there will be public pressure, if they're going to throw hundreds of million dollars in addition to the private schools, will they be forced to better fund the public in a different way on a per pupil basis.
Stephen Gruber-Miller: And the thing is that House Speaker Pat Grassley said this week, you know, if it is a priority for the Republican caucus, we will make sure that we commit and we fund that commitment in the budget. So he said that that's true of public education, but I think public education advocates feel like, well, suddenly you're about to spend $340 million a year on a private program. They don't feel like the Republicans have shown that same level of commitment to funding public schools.
Kay Henderson: There's also an element to this that is hard to wrap your mind around, but the governor has made this case that if you are a school district and you have a child living within the boundaries of the school district, that school district, public, is going to get to keep $1200 dollars even if that student attends a private school. What impact might this have on urban areas? It's been pitched as an advantage for, you know, rural school districts, but it's going to be big dollars initially for urban districts.
Stephen Gruber-Miller: Right. So we don't know totally the impact of this. I'm looking forward to digging into this in the coming days. But there's been a lot going on. But we did some back of the math, napkin math here before we came out. And essentially this $1200 dollars per student goes into certain funds that are supposed to be used for teacher mentorship. There's certain specific uses. And the governor's talking about you can open those funds up, use them for teacher salaries. Right. So this is the carrot to incentivize or make it palatable for public schools. And in Des Moines, you could potentially be looking at like $3.1 million of new money, $1200 per student, per student, per student, per student coming into the Des Moines Public School District is the math that Erin did.
Kay Henderson: Because there are so many private schools, K-12 schools in Polk County.
Stephen Gruber-Miller: That's right. In Polk County, within the boundaries of the Des Moines School District. If you're in a rural area, you get no new money for private school students because there are no students enrolled in private school within the boundaries of your public school district.
Kay Henderson: And there are 41 counties in Iowa that do not have a private school within the boundaries of the counties.
Dave Price: And that could change. There could be incentives for those to maybe offer private education with this influx of money.
Erin Murphy: Yeah, that's what I was going to say. That's one of the things that people and I've talked to people in private schools and they say that's possible, that this could create enough of not only the money being out there, but a demand for it, because right now a lot of private schools, not all of them, but a lot of them are basically at capacity and aren’t going to be able to take new students. So if there's that demand out there, we could see more schools. But yeah, you're right that it's going to be interesting to see how this impacts rural areas, too, because right now there are no private schools in there. So maybe it doesn't a whole lot because no students leave their districts either. But the thing we hear from rural school leaders is it takes far fewer students to leave to have a significant impact on that district. A handful of people leaving a Des Moines school has much less impact than it does leaving a small rural school of a couple hundred kids.
Kay Henderson: So, Dave, one other element of this plan. I mean, we've been going through the layers here, but the governor has said there are schools out there that have money they're not using for teacher leadership and mentoring programs and other uses, and they will be allowed to use that to raise teacher pay. Now, you and I are old enough to have covered Terry Branstad as governor signing the teacher mentorship program. So are we unraveling that with this proposal?
Dave Price: I would first of all like to say we are experienced and not old.
Kay Henderson: Thank you.
Dave Price: But yes, when Kim Reynolds was Terry Branstad’s lieutenant governor. Yet she's making the case that there's about $100 million in this money that has not been spent from these various programs. And so district administrators can choose to tap into that if they want to do raises for teachers. What I'm curious about going forward, though, is how will legislators fund all of this? So down the road, does this mean they will no longer put those little buckets of funding for the mentors, the mentor program, the apprenticeship, the gifted program, whatever it is? Or down the road do you still -- are you going to get a smaller chunk, if you will, smaller total, but you'll have more flexibility in how you use it? You're going to have to decide, do I want the gifted program or do I want to give everybody an additional raise?
Kay Henderson: One other part of this, Erin, is that the state of Iowa employees of are not going to be overseeing this. This bill spells out that a private company is going to be hired.
Erin Murphy: At a seemingly a fairly high dollar amount. So there's a company out there similar to the way Medicaid is now managed by private organizations, similar I suppose to during COVID, how the state partnered, contracted with a private company to provide tests, testing.
Kay Henderson: And the college savings Iowa 529 program has Vanguard running it.
Dave Price: A private company.
Kay Henderson: A private company.
Erin Murphy: Exactly, yeah. And the trick always with those kinds of things is oversight. Is that money being used the right way? Is the money in this program being used the right way?
Stephen Gruber-Miller: And no contract has been awarded to this point. But there's certainly interest and we see it in lobbyist registrations. There are lobbyists for some of these companies registered on the bills, clearly interested in the outcome to see if they might get a contract out of it.
Kay Henderson: Dave, education seems to be the theme of at least the start of the 2023 legislative session. House Republicans have proposed alternative ways to license teachers. Is that an issue that you hear percolating that you're getting a lot of feedback on?
Dave Price: Not at all yet, and I have not had one message on that. For me, it's overwhelmingly about the private school funding. Hands down.
Kay Henderson: Erin?
Erin Murphy: Yeah, yeah. Same thing. It's taken up all the oxygen in the room right now.
Kay Henderson: Stephen, there are some pieces of legislation out there that have already been proposed and had some initial review that would affect schools. Just give us an idea of a couple.
Stephen Gruber-Miller: Yeah. House Republicans have put out a set of priority bills essentially for them. And many of them have to do with education. A couple of them have to do with what can be taught in schools about LGBTQ students. So there's a bill that would ban the teaching of gender identity and sexual orientation from kindergarten through third grade. Critics have said it’s similar to Florida's the law that's been dubbed don't say gay in Florida. There's another bill that would require parents to be notified if a student wants, for instance, to use different pronouns at school. You know, maybe they are wondering about their identity, right. So this is spurred in part by the Linn-Mar School District in Cedar Rapids area having a policy that gives priority to the students’ wishes over the parents. And so Governor Reynolds and other Republicans made a big issue of this on the campaign trail. So they want to sort of, the argument is we want parents to know exactly what's going on in the classroom.
Kay Henderson: Erin, we have about a minute left. There's also a proposal out there that would increase state funding for the three state supported universities, but it would be tied to spending in specific areas.
Erin Murphy: Yeah, and Pat Grassley and the speaker of the House in particular has been pushing this approach and wanting to essentially know that state dollars are going to these universities and that they're putting those funds into majors and programs that are pushing out graduates who can work in these fields that we're seeing shortages in nowadays. Critics of that say that's not what public universities should be for, it should be about broader education.
Kay Henderson: Well, okay, just real quickly, we have about 15 seconds left, each of you. What's your guess on if this bill is going to pass? I'll start with you, Dave.
Dave Price: I mean, the numbers should be there. And this would be humiliating for the governor if it fails.
Kay Henderson: Stephen?
Stephen Gruber-Miller: They think the numbers are there.
Kay Henderson: Erin?
Erin Murphy: Based on what I'm hearing it sounds like they have it. I won't say that with 100% certainty, but it sounds like it's going to pass. Third time's the charm.
Kay Henderson: Well, I have 100% certainty, we have no more time for this conversation. But we will convene again and discuss whatever happens up at the Statehouse.
Erin Murphy: Is that your way of getting out of making a guess yourself?
Kay Henderson: It is.
Dave Price: Well done.
Kay Henderson: You can watch this edition of Iowa Press and every edition of Iowa Press at iowapbs.org. For everyone here at Iowa PBS, thanks for watching today.
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