Charter school bill heads to Gov. Reynolds’ desk, divisive concepts bill gets a makeover

Taxpayers will pay for charter schools. They deserve access to school records. (Creative Commons photo via Pxhere)

State senators approved a controversial charter school bill Wednesday that would allow new institutions to open outside the purview of a school board.

House File 813 would create a new pathway for charter schools to form independently, applying and reporting directly to the State Board of Education. The Senate passed the proposal along party lines, 30-18, sending it to Gov. Kim Reynolds’ desk to be signed into law.

Sen. Amy Sinclair, R-Allerton, said the bill will allow school boards and parents more freedom to create school systems that work for them.

“Not all students thrive in a traditional classroom. Not all students are on a path toward college,” Sinclair said. “Not all students should be held back to languish at the average.”

Democrats proposed over a dozen amendments to the bill, most requiring certain restrictions or mandates for charter school operations and hiring practices. All amendments failed.

“Does it benefit the majority of Iowans? No. Does it solve a pressing need? No,” Sen. Claire Celsi, D-Des Moines, said. “Does this solution have a good track record in other places? Decidedly not.”

The Senate also voted 30-18 to pass an amended version of House File 802, a bill to prohibit certain “divisive concepts” from mandatory training and school curriculum. Among the divisive concepts are the idea that the U.S. or Iowa are inherently or systemically racist or sexist, or the idea that someone is unconsciously racist or sexist due to their race or sex.

The bill will return to the House for consideration of the amendment.

“We should be shocked anytime anyone would advocate for stereotyping or scapegoating of any individual group of people just by a single or multiple characteristics that those individuals cannot control,” Sinclair said, calling such curriculum “indoctrination.”

Sinclair introduced an amendment to the legislation that would allow training leaders to answer questions pertaining to divisive topics, now called “specific defined concepts.” The amendment also clarifies that schools may teach about “sexism, slavery, racial oppression, racial segregation, or racial discrimination” in addition to policies that result in sexism, racism, segregation or oppression. 

Sen. Herman Quirmbach, D-Ames, said the bill, even with the amendment, still targets school districts that use the 1619 Project, a New York Times series on the history of slavery in the U.S., and districts that recognized Black Lives Matter and “promoted discussion of racial issues through the curriculum.”

“I expect that (schools’) response, in many cases, it will be a chilling effect,” Quirmbach said. “They’ll just want to stay away from the topics which have so recently divided our society and historically divided our society.”

Sinclair responded that the bill would encourage more critical thinking if schools cannot paint groups of people as “bad” due to their race or sex. 

The passage of the two bills comes two days after hundreds of Des Moines Public School students and parents gathered on the Capitol steps to protest the legislation. Students raised concerns that the divisive concept bills would restrict a school’s ability to have meaningful discussions about race and history.

“The education system cannot fully commit to anti-racism and equity if they can’t acknowledge and talk about the harm that marginalized communities have undergone and continue to experience,” Endi Montalvo-Martinez, a senior at East High School, said at the event.

Students also objected to the charter school bill, which could take funding from public school districts. Public schools are allocated a certain amount of money per pupil, and if those pupils leave the public school and attend a charter school instead, that funding goes with them.

Sinclair said the protesters — “impressionable children” — were “enabled to be truant” by the Des Moines Public School district.