House passes contentious charter school bill in late-night vote

By: - March 25, 2021 1:02 am
Rear view of students sitting with hands raised in classroom

A teacher stands in front of a classroom as students raise their hands. (Photo by Getty Images)

The Iowa House passed a bill early Thursday that would create new pathways to establish charter schools.

House File 813 would allow school boards to establish new charter schools within their district. The bill would also allow groups unaffiliated with the school board to apply directly to the state board of education to create a new charter school that would operate separately from the public school district.

“Charter schools serve as incubators of innovation in neighborhoods across our country,” said Rep. Skyler Wheeler, R-Orange City, who led floor debate on the bill. “These institutions give educators the freedom to cultivate new teaching models and develop creative methods to meet students’ needs.”

Shortly before 1 a.m., the House voted 55-40 to pass the bill. 

Democrats argued that charter schools that do not report to local school boards would not have the same accountability as public schools that are governed by elected officials. Those schools would instead report to the state board of education, a nine-member panel appointed by the governor.

“This is not a public charter. The board is not elected by Iowa citizens,” said Rep. Sharon Steckman, D-Mason City. “There is no referendum that Iowa citizens will be able to vote on.”

The House approved amendments to the bill to require charter school governing boards to hold public meetings and to post the school’s annual budget online. The amended bill also mandates that a majority of the governing board members live in the school’s area and that all members of the governing board must live in Iowa.

After a charter school opens, it is exempt from some of the rules that govern public schools. Charter schools could not charge tuition and they would have to be nonreligious and in compliance with state nondiscrimination and civil rights policies.

Democrats questioned whether it was beneficial to fund privately operated schools with taxpayer dollars. When a student transfers from a public school to a charter school, a certain amount of state funding leaves the public school with them. In fiscal year 2022, the state will allocate $7,227 per pupil, plus additional funding for teacher salaries, professional development and other programs.

“All we’re doing is cutting public education, cut by cut by cut,” Steckman said. 

Wheeler responded that charter schools would create more options for students.

“Are we funding systems? Are we funding the status quo?” Wheeler asked. “Or are we funding students?”

Rep. Chris Hall, D-Sioux City, called a meeting of the Appropriations Committee at 11 p.m. to review the fiscal details of the bill. Lawmakers in the committee could not estimate how much money would leave public schools under the legislation because it will be based on student enrollment at charter schools. Questions also remained about whether a student from outside Iowa could attend a charter school in the state.

“The timing of when this will all occur and when we will know is still up in the air in regard to the districts knowing, the state knowing, the appropriations committee knowing,” Rep. Cindy Winckler, D-Davenport, said in the committee.

Democrats proposed over two dozen amendments to the bill. None passed.

“We aren’t opening the floodgates to outside groups or torching our education system,” Wheeler said. “We are simply advocating for a proven educational option.” 

The legislation now moves to the Senate.

The bill is a section of the Senate’s original school choice proposal, which passed early in the 2021 session. That bill, Senate File 159, also included changes to open enrollment policies and introduced state-funded scholarships for public school students in some struggling districts to attend private schools.

There are currently two charter schools in Iowa: a high school in Storm Lake and another in Maynard. There were 149 students enrolled across the two schools in the 2019-2020 school year.

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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.