Senate narrowly approves bill expanding school options

By: - January 28, 2021 7:36 pm

Mask mandates at Iowa schools are banned under a new state law. (Stock photo/Getty Images)

After a sometimes emotional debate, the Iowa Senate on Thursday narrowly approved Gov. Kim Reynolds’ proposal to expand state support for certain students who want to attend a nonpublic or charter school or transfer to a different public district.

The Senate approved Senate Filed 159 on a 26-21 vote. It needed 26 votes to pass. Three Republicans joined Democrats in voting against the bill: Dawn Driscoll of Williamsburg, Tom Shipley of Nodaway and Annette Sweeney of Alden.

The bill, parts of which have long been Republican legislative priorities, has proven controversial. Democrats who oppose the bill have accused supporters of siphoning money away from public schools to private and religious schools and supporting a return to school segregation. Supporters emphasized the need to assist students trapped in schools that are either “failing” or are giving students no in-person attendance options during the pandemic.

“I’ve been sitting here today, I won’t lie, a little dumbfounded, overwhelmed by the response that I’ve been getting from this bill,” Sen. Amy Sinclair, R-Allerton, floor manager of the bill, said.

While she said while she has received a “huge amount” of comments from Iowans who support the bill, “I don’t understand the level of resistance that is coming at us, as we’re trying to protect this very, very limited population of children who are quite literally trapped in failing schools.”

Sen. Brad Zaun, R-Urbandale, whose children attended private Dowling Catholic High School in West Des Moines, said the bill will help minority students, not hurt them.

“You know what is missing from you all?” he said to Democrats in the chamber. “You don’t hear much about parents and the students. But we’re hearing a lot about administrators and teachers. I know you’re trying to take care of the teacher’s union.”

Sen. Herman Quirmbach, D-Ames, said the legislation incorrectly suggests something is wrong with Iowa schools. He objected to that.

After ticking off a list of studies that question the superiority of private schools, Quirmbach, a professional educator, said, “Why are we thinking that somehow it’s going to magically improve students’ learning by sending them to a private school or a charter school? The evidence just does not support that.”

Later, Quirmbach drew a rebuke from Senate President Jake Chapman for using profanity when he stated:

“Instead of simply providing an off-ramp for those people who know how to work the system, and leaving the children who are left behind in those same schools that you’ve been telling us all day are just awful, if the school is not performing, fix the damn school!”

Sinclair argued that no private school is directly receiving taxpayers’ money, because the public dollars go into a scholarship fund in the student’s name. “These are scholarships to students, these are not vouchers to schools,” she said.

The bill now moves to the Iowa House, where Republican leaders say they expect to take more time with the proposal.

“We’re continuing to look at the governor’s proposal and definitely are very open to it, but as far as, as quickly as the Senate, at this point in time where I’m at, I don’t see it moving as fast as that,” House Speaker Pat Grassley, R-New Hartford, said. “We have other things that we’re doing at the same time as well.”

About the bill:

Senate File 159 would create state-funded scholarships for K-12 students in underperforming districts to attend nonpublic schools. The state estimated the average scholarship would be about $5,200 for expenses like tuition, fees and textbooks. Supporters of the bill say about 10,000 students in 34 schools that meet federal criteria for “comprehensive support and improvement” would qualify.

The legislation does not limit the amount of money the state could commit to the scholarship fund.

The Iowa Department of Education would audit the funds, approve expenditures and refer any fraudulent uses to the attorney general for prosecution.

The bill also expands the state’s charter school program, allowing either a school board or an outside founding group to establish and operate schools within the public system.

The bill eliminates barriers to open enrollment from one public district to another. It also discontinues voluntary diversity policies that enable five school districts in the state to deny open enrollment for students who would “adversely affect” the school’s plan.

The original bill would have allowed students who open-enroll to be immediately eligible for sports participation. But senators changed that proposal in light of concerns about creating a sports-recruitment process. The bill approved Thursday allows a waiver of the waiting period if a student open-enrolls for “good cause,” such as a change of parental custody.

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