Reynolds signs into law new expansion of charter schools in Iowa

At the headquarters of the nonprofit mentoring program Starts Right Here, Gov. Kim Reynolds signs into law a bill expanding charter schools in Iowa. (Photo by Clark Kauffman/Iowa Capital Dispatch)

Gov. Kim Reynolds signed what she called “historic legislation” on Wednesday, expanding the state’s charter school system to encourage more publicly funded, but privately run, schools.

Reynolds signed House File 813 into law, clearing the way for private organizations, and not just public school boards, to form charter schools that can offer students alternative methods of learning.

Under the new law, organizations could apply to the state Board of Education to form a charter school, rather than route their requests through a local school board for its approval.

“If there’s one thing the pandemic taught us, it’s that parents should have the opportunity to choose what is best for their children,” Reynolds said. “Conventional public education may not work for all students … For some families, charter schools can provide an innovative alternative learning model that motivates students to succeed and allows greater flexibility for districts and schools to focus on closing gaps in student opportunity and achievement for all students, from preschool through post-secondary preparation.”

Reynolds said she feels it is “imperative that we have a strong public schools system, which is why I have proposed increased funding for K-12 year over year, and will continue to prioritize K-12 funding” in the years ahead.

Will Keeps, founder of the nonprofit mentoring program Starts Right Here, watches as Gov. Kim Reynolds prepares to sign into law a bill expanding charter schools in Iowa. (Photo by Clark Kauffman/Iowa Capital Dispatch)

“This law will allow, for the first time, founding groups to apply to the state Board of Education for a charter, and in doing so it will breathe new life into the charter school system too long stifled by restrictive rules,” Reynolds said.

She said current law provides “too few options” for charter schools and noted there are only two charter schools in Iowa today.

“The law will still allow public school districts to apply for a charter but will significantly expand the pool of other potential applicants — all of which will undergo a rigorous approval process and ongoing oversight from the state Board of Education and the Iowa Department of Education,” Reynolds said.

Democrats in the Iowa Senate proposed more than a dozen amendments to the bill, most requiring certain restrictions or mandates for charter school operations and hiring practices. All of the amendments failed to win approval.

“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.”

Reynolds signed the legislation at the headquarters of Starts Right Here, a tutoring and mentoring program that has a one-year contract with the Des Moines public schools to serve 22 youth.

Democrats have argued that charter schools created by the new law would be less accountable to local school boards or to the taxpayers who help fund them. Under the new law, the charter schools cannot be religious in nature and cannot charge tuition, and must follow the same health and safety requirements that apply to traditional public schools.

Clark Kauffman
Deputy Editor Clark Kauffman has worked during the past 30 years as both an investigative reporter and editorial writer at two of Iowa’s largest newspapers, the Des Moines Register and the Quad-City Times. He has won numerous state and national awards for reporting and editorial writing. His 2004 series on prosecutorial misconduct in Iowa was named a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Reporting. From October 2018 through November 2019, Kauffman was an assistant ombudsman for the Iowa Office of Ombudsman, an agency that investigates citizens’ complaints of wrongdoing within state and local government agencies.