Students First Act passes in Iowa

Gov. Kim Reynolds signs the “Students First Act,” legislation es- tablishing a private school scholarship program into law Tuesday at the Iowa State Capitol in Des Moines after it passed in the early hours that day. Photo by Robin Opsahl/Iowa Capital Dispatch.

DES MOINES — On Jan. 24, Governor Kim Reynolds signed the Students First Act (HF68). ‘An Act connecting education programs and funding by establishing an education savings account program, modifying school district categorical funding supplements and supplementary weighting, making appropriations, providing penalties, and including effective date and retroactive applicability provisions.’

“For the first time, we will fund students instead of a system, a decisive step in ensuring that every child in Iowa can receive the best education possible,” she said in a statement. “With this bill, Iowa has affirmed that educational freedom belongs to all, not just those who can afford it.”

The Student First Act will provide Iowa students with $7,598 each year to use for private school tuition and costs. Currently enrolled private school students must meet income limits to qualify in the first two years of the program. All private students will be eligible in the third year.

Public school districts will receive an estimated $1,205 for each student living within the boundaries of their district who attend private school, even if they’ve never been enrolled in a public school. All public school students will be eligible for an educational savings account (ESA) starting in the 2023-2024 school year.

“I voted against this bill last year. When it became obvious that the bill was going to pass, no matter how I voted, I went to work to help make it better for schools and the students in my district,” said Sen. Annette Sweeney, who represents most of Tama County in the Iowa Senate. “This was a difficult decision for me. The votes were there to pass the bill, so I worked hard to make HF 68 better and to keep the best interests of our students first and foremost.”

The effect of the new Student First Act on rural communities will present unique challenges compared to their larger district counterparts. The operation-sharing incentives for rural schools that were to end in 2025 have been extended until 2035, along with the Teacher Leadership Compensation (TLC) being included in the recent amendment. Critics of the bill, which did not receive a single Democratic vote in the House or Senate, contend it will take funds away from public schools.

“The goal of the Students First Act is to create educational options for Iowa students. If this act were to defund public schools, the objective of this act would not be accomplished. Rather, the exact opposite would be done, less educational options for students,” said Sen. Sweeney.