School choice, charter school bills advance in Iowa House

By: - March 2, 2021 5:07 pm

Young student watching lesson online and studying from home. (Photo by Getty Images)

Iowa House panels considered two parts of the governor’s education proposal Tuesday: a plan to establish a new charter school program and a student scholarship fund to allow some public school students to transfer to a private school.

Republican lawmakers said the legislation would give more options to families, especially those in subpar public schools.

“If we keep doing the same thing that we’ve always done, we’re going to keep getting what we’ve got,” said Rep. John Wills, R-Spirit Lake.

The Senate passed Gov. Kim Reynolds’ entire 51-page proposal in January. One month later, members of the House Education Committee are considering the same language, but divided into individual bills. Tuesday’s subcommittees came one day after the conservative group Club for Growth launched an ad against House Speaker Pat Grassley, urging him to move more quickly on the school choice proposal.

The bills move next to the full House Education Committee. Most policy bills need committee approval by the end of this week in order for the legislation to stay active during this legislative session. 

Bill creates more pathways to start charter schools

House Study Bill 242 proposes a new system for founding charter schools in Iowa. The bill would allow charter schools to either form as part of an existing school district or to form outside of the jurisdiction of local school boards, instead reporting directly to the Department of Education.

Advocates argued that the legislation would create more opportunities for charter schools that serve “unmet needs” for low-income or rural Iowans and for technical and career training options.

“Charter schools are a way for us to broaden the offering through the public school system that we offer within this state,” said Mark Jacobs, founder of school advocacy group Reaching Higher Iowa.

Will Keeps runs “Starts Right Here,” a Des Moines program to help at-risk youth complete their education and prepare for adult life. He advocated for the charter school proposal Tuesday. Keeps said he was in favor of expanding charter school options for kids who weren’t being supported by public schools.

“We keep pouring money into public schools, yet still those thousands of kids that are not being successful … They need other options,” he said.

Opponents of the bill raised concerns that charter schools would be less accountable and would take taxpayer money away from public schools. Several asked: why change Iowa’s current system for forming charter schools? Under current law, Iowa allows public school districts to approve a charter program within an existing school or convert a public school to a charter school.

Melissa Peterson, lobbyist for the Iowa State Education Association, said she did not know of any cases where a charter school application was rejected under the current state law. 

“If there is something wrong with our existing public charter school law, I would like to know exactly what that is,” she said.

Peterson instead asked lawmakers to consider funding unique projects at Iowa schools that already exist.

“If you’re going to make additional investments, we would like to see investments made in those programs, to expand those programs and those options,” she said.

Margaret Buckton, lobbyist for the Urban Education Network of Iowa, echoed the request: Focus on existing Iowa schools, especially public schools, before creating pathways for brand-new charters.

The subcommittee moved the bill. Rep. Skyler Wheeler, R-Orange City, and Rep. Chad Ingels, R-Randalia, voted in favor of the legislation. Democrat Rep. Mary Mascher, Iowa City, left the meeting before voting.

“Education should always be centered around the needs of the student and empowering parents, who of course know what is best for their children, to make the best decisions for where and how to educate them,” Wheeler said.

School choice bill passes subcommittee

House Study Bill 243 would establish a scholarship program for students attending public schools that are identified as needing “comprehensive” support under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act. Students could choose to attend a nonpublic school and use state funds to pay for tuition.

“We know students in Iowa learn differently than one another, and we know that when there’s an environment where school choice is available that not just those students that chose that option, but all students are going to do better,” said Logan Shine, lobbyist for the governor’s office.

Grant Goldsberry, a radiologist in Ames, spoke in favor of the bill as the parent of private school students. He recognized that the opportunities he could provide his children were inaccessible to many.

“I believe strongly in equity of opportunity for all children,” Goldsberry said. “Currently, we do have school choice in Iowa, but unfortunately, that largely breaks down along financial demographics and also based on minority communities in our state.”

Only about 10,240 students would be eligible for the first year of the program, according to a fiscal report from the nonprofit Legislative Services Agency. Of those, the LSA estimates 3.5% would take advantage of the program, if passed.

Opponents to the legislation said lawmakers should instead channel public funds toward public schools, especially those that are struggling. The Legislative Services Agency estimates the appropriation for the program would be $1.8 million in its first year, then grow to $3.9 million by the third year. School districts would lose no money in the first year, but would lose $2.6 million by the third year, they estimate.

“We believe the best answer for our ‘failing’ schools is to provide the resources … to help us, don’t take those resources away from us,” said lobbyist Emily Piper of the Iowa Association of School Boards.

Buckton of the Urban Education Network noted that the schools in Iowa identified as struggling were those facing some of the biggest challenges: non-English speaking students, poverty and high rates of student disabilities. 

She also asked for more transparency for private schools.

“We simply oppose public dollars for private purposes without the corresponding oversight, transparency, expectations and accountability that should accompany those public funds,” Buckton said.

The subcommittee voted to move the bill. Wills and Rep. Henry Stone, R-Forest City, voted in favor, while Rep. Ras Smith, D-Waterloo, voted against.

Smith questioned whether the private schools eligible for the program would be required to uphold the same accessibility and educational standards as public schools: Must the nonpublic schools be accredited? Do they accept every student, including students with disabilities or who identify as LGBT?

“If you want taxpayer dollars, then you also owe the taxpayers some responsibility, accountability and transparency to see where the money is going,” Smith said.

Wills responded that the bill will give more options for parents to find a school that best fits their child, rather than focusing exclusively on providing resources to struggling schools.

“We’ve tried spending and we still have the same problems,” he said. “So let’s do something different.”

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Katie Akin
Katie Akin

Katie Akin is a former Iowa Capital Dispatch reporter. Katie began her career as an intern at PolitiFact, debunking viral fake news and fact-checking state and national politicians. She moved to Iowa in 2019 for a politics internship at the Des Moines Register, where she assisted with Iowa Caucus coverage, multimedia projects and the Register’s Iowa Poll. She became the Register’s retail reporter in early 2020, chronicling the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on Central Iowa’s restaurants and retailers.