The Pros and Cons of the Students First Act



With many Republicans praising Gov. Kim Reynolds successfully passing the school choice bill, education majors both praise and criticize the bill and the impact it will have on public education.

DREW HILL, Opinion Columnist

On January 24, Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds signed House File 68, better known as the “Students First Act,” into law in Iowa. This bill has also been called a “school choice” bill, because its main purpose is to give vouchers to students who attend private schools, opening up more options for parents in regard to their children’s education. This has raised a lot of controversy.

This bill has been a priority for Governor Reynolds for a couple of years. However, there had not been enough support for the bill to pass it through both the Iowa Senate and the Iowa General Assembly. After last November’s election results expanded the Republican majority in both Houses, it finally had the votes necessary to pass just three weeks into the legislative session.

According to an article in the Des Moines Register by Katie Akin and Stephen Gruber-Miller, the bill will give up to about $7,598 per year to parents in an education savings account to use for private school tuition and fees and other educational expenses. The bill would also give about $1205 to public schools for each student who uses the funds for private school within their school district. The bill is estimated to cost $345 million annually in the 2025-26 school year, when all Iowa families would be eligible.

The wider controversy

Part of the motivation for passing this bill has been carried along by a wider controversy of the current state of public schools nationwide. Other issues include whether certain books should be age-restricted and whether schools should allow parents to see all school curriculum to know what their children are being taught. Combined with the chaos COVID-19 caused in schools for the last couple of years, these factors have led to public schools nationwide losing thousands of students. According to an article in the New York Times by Shawn Hubler, the number of students that moved out of public schools was at least 1.2 million students nationwide from 2020 to 2022. Many parents switched to homeschooling during the pandemic, but others chose private schools that had less strict pandemic restrictions or featured more in-person learning. Iowa attempted to pass a school transparency bill last year, and that appears to be the next step in this process. This type of bill could force schools to publish curriculums and lists of books online, so parents have a better understanding of what their children are being taught.

Benefits to parents

Because of this shift to private and home schooling, this bill can be beneficial to parents who want more options or feel a private school is more beneficial to their child’s learning. Parents already pay state taxes for education. For parents that homeschool or send their children to private schools, they are essentially paying for two educations, even though they are only using one. It makes sense to give some of that money back to those parents. According to Cora Zikuda, a senior majoring in Elementary Education here at UNI, “It gives parents more of a choice where they send their child so it better accommodates what their child needs.”

Affects on public school funding and state expenses

However, some have suggested this bill will be harmful by taking funding from public schools. Some are already struggling financially. According to Anthony Houselog, a freshman majoring in Physical Education here at UNI, “As a future teacher, most likely in a public school, I see this bill having a detrimental impact on public education. Public schools are already struggling financially and this bill will take much needed funding away. For example, the courses high schools offer often depend on staffing, which in turn depends on student enrollment. If enrollment decreases, so do the number of teachers and course offerings.” Even though public schools will receive some money for each student that utilizes the education savings accounts, they will not receive the full amount that they could.

The expense of the bill is also concerning to some. Considering it will apply to all Iowa families by the 2025-26 school year, some have suggested that income limits should not be phased out. They also suggest that this will mostly benefit the wealthy. Families that can already afford private school tuition will be receiving money that the state would not necessarily have to spend. However, according to an article by Ellie Krasne in the Des Moines Register, the opposite could actually be true. The first two years will impose income limits on the families that can participate, so only those making below a certain threshold can apply. Also, it will help some families that maybe could not have afforded private school tuition to afford it, potentially benefiting lower-income families.

However, Houselog also suggested that part of the wider controversy is the assumption that private schools are better than public schools. “I think the way this bill has been promoted by some lawmakers has implied that public schools are not good places to receive a quality education in Iowa and I strongly disagree with that. In my years in public elementary, middle and high school, I had some really great teachers who went above and beyond to help all of their students, regardless of their circumstance.” Another way to look at it is that it gives parents more options regarding their children’s education to do what works best for them. For some, public schools are the best option, but for others, private or home school might suit them better. Zikuda mentioned that it could actually make public schools better in the long run, saying, “I think it’s good for public schools because they’ll have to strive to do better so they aren’t losing kids to private school.”

Potential for regulations

Another concern raised with the bill is about whether giving state funds to private schools could lead to more regulations of private schools. However, the bill clearly states that it does not give the state any authority to implement new regulations on private schools. The Supreme Court has also made it clear that school vouchers going to religious schools does not violate the First Amendment Establishment Clause. In fact, in the case of Carson v. Makin, which was decided in 2022, the Supreme Court ruled that a Maine tuition assistance program that did not allow state aid to go to private religious schools violated the First Amendment Free Exercise Clause.

Overall, the reduction in funding could lead to public schools struggling with funding. The bill also adds a major expense for the state. However, parents will benefit from this bill by having more options for their children’s education. Like many things, there are benefits and drawbacks to this bill, and time will tell whether one will outweigh the other.