Lawmakers advance governor’s plan to expand state support for non-public schools

Legislation proposed by Gov. Kim Reynolds would expand taxpayer support for non-public schools. (Photo courtesy of the Governor's STEM Advisory Council)

Schools would have to offer full-time, in-person instruction and the state would financially support more options for students to attend private schools if two bills that advanced in the Iowa Senate Monday become law.

Gov. Kim Reynolds, a Republican, identified both issues as priorities for the legislative session. 

Senate Study Bill 1064 would require schools offer full-time in-person learning options for any student who wants it  as the COVID-19 pandemic wears on. Senate Study Bill 1065 would provide funding to Iowa students who choose to attend a nonpublic school and would loosen the rules for founding charter schools in the state.

“If there’s one thing the pandemic has taught us about education, it’s that our parents need choice,” Reynolds said in her Jan. 12 Condition of the State address. “And it’s not just in-person versus virtual. Sometimes it’s about which school to attend altogether.”

The Senate Education Committee approved both bills, which are now eligible for debate by the full Senate.

Parents push for full-time learning

A bipartisan bill passed in June required Iowa schools to provide instruction primarily through in-person instruction during the pandemic. Reynolds later used that language to justify a requirement that schools provide at least 50% of classes in person unless they received a waiver from the state for primarily online instruction.

Senate Study Bill 1064 would require schools across Iowa to offer full-time, in-person learning options for families that want it. Parents could still choose online classes and districts could still request a waiver to move courses online if virus conditions require it. If passed, the bill will take effect immediately, 

Republican lawmakers reiterated the popularity of such a bill among constituents.

State Sen. Brad Zaun is a Republican from Urbandale. (Photo courtesy of the Iowa Legislature)

“When I was door-knocking just last fall for my re-election, I constantly heard from parents pleading to get their kids back in school,” said Sen. Brad Zaun, R-Urbandale.

School districts would still be able to request a waiver from the Department of Education if community spread of COVID-19 is too high to safely hold in-person classes, Zaun said.

Opponents of the measure said timing was wrong for a 100% full-time mandate. Sen. Herman Quirmbach, D-Ames, pointed to new, foreign strains of the coronavirus and to the lack of a vaccine for children under 16 as hindrances for a full-time reopening mandate. 

“The schools are mandated to change their plans, take on additional efforts at greater risk to their personnel,” Quirmbach said. “This is not the time for the heavy hand of state.”

Activists spar on charter school bill

Senate Study Bill 1065 proposes new allowances for Iowa students to attend private or charter schools. The 65-page bill would create scholarships for K-12 students in underperforming districts to attend nonpublic schools.

The bill would also create new pathways to allow charter schools to function independently of public school districts. It would also discontinue voluntary diversity policies, which allowed school districts to deny open enrollment for students who would “adversely affect” the school’s plan.

“School choice shouldn’t be limited to those who have the financial means or are lucky to live in a district that’s confident enough to allow open enrollment,” Reynolds said in her Condition of the State address. “So let’s make choice an option for everyone.”

Zaun said his only regret was that the bill did not go further to allow parents control of where their children attend school. Under the current proposal, only students who would attend public schools “identified for comprehensive support and improvement under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act” are eligible for the scholarship fund.

“This gives parents the choice to decide what is the best school in their area, public or nonpublic,” Zaun said in a Monday subcommittee meeting. “You should not have to go to school based on where your ZIP code is.”

Democratic senators joined school administrators, students and activists who spoke against the bill contended it would channel money away from public schools, would favor already-advantaged students and could adversely impact diversity in schools.

Paras Bassuk is a high school senior from Iowa City. (Screen shot from Iowa Senate subcommittee meeting)

“A school that is suffering from lack of resources or is under-serving its students would be better suited to receive sufficient funding than to lose students to wealthier districts and private schools,” said Iowa City high school senior Paras Bassuk, noting that he had watched his own public school district struggle through budget cuts.

Representatives from civil rights groups argued the measure would disadvantage marginalized students. Betty Andrews, president of the Iowa-Nebraska NAACP, said charter schools had less accountability and resulted in worse outcomes for Black and minority students.  

“This bill would potentially finance a cycle that could lead to segregation of Iowa schools, allowing wealthier families to flee public schools for less diverse charter or private schools and reducing funds for poor and minority students,” Andrews said.

Republican senators argued the bill would be beneficial for minority students by providing options beyond public schools.

“School choice started because people of color were tired of their kids being stuck in failing schools,” Sen. Amy Sinclair, R-Allerton, said.