Reynolds pushes for private school scholarships ahead of legislative deadline

Other education priorities have already made it through committee

By: - February 15, 2022 4:53 pm

Gov. Kim Reynolds accepts an award from St. Theresa Catholic School Principal Ellen Stemler on Feb. 15, 2022 during a visit to the Des Moines school. (Photo by Katie Akin/Iowa Capital Dispatch)

From the first moments of the 2022 legislative session, education policy has been in the spotlight.

Flashy, controversial bills dominated discussion, like Sen. Jake Chapman’s proposal to impose criminal penalties on teachers who assign obscene books, or a bill to prohibit transgender girls from playing on the girls’ teams at schools.

But lawmakers have considered a wider array of educational changes to hire more teachers, expand parent choice, address employee misconduct and more. Many of the bills have already met the first “funnel” deadline on Friday. That means they’ve been approved by a committee in one of the chambers, marking the bills eligible for continued debate as the legislative session goes on. 

Other bills, including priorities from Gov. Kim Reynolds and other GOP leaders, have yet to win committee approval, giving lawmakers just a few days to push them across the finish line.

Bills that fail to meet the funnel deadline could still pass in a different form, including as an amendment to another bill or as a bill sponsored by legislative leaders.

Many education priorities have already made it through committee, marking them alive through the funnel deadline. (Graphic by Katie Akin/Iowa Capital Dispatch)

Reynolds promotes private school scholarship bill

Reynolds is taking another swing at private school scholarships for public school students. Her proposal would allow eligible public school students to transfer to a private school and access some of the state’s per-pupil funding to pay for educational expenses. 

“If education truly is the great equalizer, then we should create opportunities for more families to provide their children with the education that best fits them,” Reynolds said Tuesday at a news conference. 

Reynolds first introduced education savings accounts as part of a charter school proposal in 2021. Lawmakers passed provisions to make charter schools easier to form in Iowa, but left out the private school scholarships.

This year’s proposal, Senate Study Bill 3080, changed the formula. Instead of sending the entire per-pupil allocation along with a student to their new private school, only 70% of the funds would be available for tuition or other educational expenses. The other 30% would go toward rural school districts.

“This bill is thoughtfully designed to give parents a choice while at the same time preserving the vitality of public schools,” Reynolds said.

But the proposal has lagged in the House and Senate, even as other education bills zoomed through. A Senate subcommittee approved the bill on Feb. 2, but has not yet considered it in the full committee. The House has not taken up the bill in subcommittee yet. 

Rep. Dustin Hite, chair of the House Education Committee, said Monday that House lawmakers were unlikely to take up the legislation before Friday’s funnel deadline.

“I think we’re still going to have conversations in the House on it,” Hite, R-New Sharon, said.

A spokesperson for Reynolds confirmed the bill is subject to the funnel deadline, meaning it needs to make it through the Education Committee in at least one chamber by the end of the week. Reynolds said Tuesday she felt “really good” about the bill’s chance of moving forward.

“We made great progress last year, but I had said we’re coming back, and we met with legislators in the interim. We continue to listen to some of their concerns,” she said. “And I believe that we took that into account with the bill that we put forward this year.”

House committee approves restrictions on transgender athletes

House File 2309 would prohibit transgender females from competing with biological females in girls’ sports.

The House Education Committee approved the bill Monday evening. A group of supporters rallied at the Capitol before the meeting, wearing red shirts that read “Save Girls’ Sports.” Proponents of the bill argued transgender girls – who were born male – have a biological advantage and should not be allowed to compete against cisgender girls.

“We created girls’ sports so girls had a level and equal playing field to compete,” said Rep. Skyler Wheeler, R-Orange City. “And right now we’re seeing that violated all across the nation.”

Democrats on the committee voted against the bill, arguing it amounted to state-sanctioned discrimination.

“There has been no documented case in Iowa where a transgender girl playing a girls’ sport has caused any problem,” said Rep. Mary Mascher, D-Iowa City.

Wheeler said he was aware of a half-dozen situations in Iowa, though none had led to widespread controversy.

“This will come to Iowa,” said Wheeler. “It’s in Iowa. We haven’t seen those big examples yet, I admit that, but it’s coming.”

Reynolds called for legislation on transgender athletes in the waning weeks of the 2021 legislative session. She told reporters Tuesday she would wait to see the final bill before endorsing it, but she emphasized that restricting girls’ sports to biological females was “a fairness issue.”

“My granddaughter runs in track, and Kevin and I try to get to as many track meets as we can,” Reynolds said. “All you have to do is look at the scoreboard when it’s a girls’ and boys’ track meet and watch the races come in. They’re not equal.”

House bill would add requirements for social studies instruction

Some lawmakers have taken aim at amending curriculum standards for social studies. 

House File 2099 creates new standards for social studies classes in Iowa. The House Education Committee on Monday amended the bill to require a unit on “civil discourse.”

Rep. Ras Smith, D-Waterloo, asked what civil discourse was.

“I believe the Board of Education would do a fine job of putting together a class on the definition of civil discourse,” responded Rep. John Wills, R-Spirit Lake, who led passage of the bill and amendment.

Democrats asked for a strike-all amendment that would allow a committee of parents, teachers and administrators to decide how social studies curriculum should change. Republicans rejected the amendment.

The committee moved the bill, marking it safe past the funnel and eligible for floor debate.

Changes to abuse allegation procedures make it through subcommittee

Hite led the charge on a bill to change the way the Board of Educational Examiners handles sexual abuse allegations against teachers.

House Study Bill 702 would create a committee of teachers, administrators, local board members and parents to evaluate incidents and decide if the perpetrator should be placed on administrative leave. The committee would also recommend a punishment to the board.

Representatives from the Board of Education Examiners said they have already taken steps to ensure teachers with credible allegations against them have their licenses suspended or revoked, even if criminal charges are lagging.

“We have not always done that,” said Nicole Proesh, attorney for the board. “But there were a few situations that arose recently that we said, you know what, we’re going to move this forward on the licensing end.”

Education groups registered in opposition to the bill, though lobbyists said they supported the mission of weeding out sexual predators in school. They raised concerns the committee structure would interfere with due process and compromise confidentiality agreements.

Hite and Rep. Holly Brink moved the bill through subcommittee, with plans to push it through the full Education Committee before the funnel deadline.

“I’m not saying this is a perfect bill. I’m not saying this is the right direction,” Hite said. “But this is my first attempt at this.”

Lawmakers say licensure changes would help to hire and retain teachers

The House Education Committee passed two changes to teacher licensing laws on Monday. Hite said the changes would help address the teacher shortage.

House Study Bill 632 would allow a professional pursuing a second career in teaching to earn their teaching license more easily. With 15 hours of additional education, an individual would be qualified for an internship or student teacher program.

Hite said the change would allow “people that might bring a different perspective … based on their experience” to transition to teaching with “minimal costs.”

House Study Bill 656 would exempt Iowa teachers with a master’s or doctoral degree from needing to renew their teaching licenses.

Both bills passed through committee on Monday night.

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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.