Fourth graders listen to guest speakers at Moore Elementary in Des Moines, Iowa. (Photo courtesy of Phil Roeder/Des Moines Public Schools)
Iowa school officials are concerned a new “parental choice” law will interfere with district funding and their ability to plan yearly budgets, which they say will ultimately affect students.
Students attending Iowa public schools now have the option to open enroll into any district at any given time of the year. When students leave, over $7,000 in state funding school districts receive will also disappear with them.
Gov. Kim Reynolds earlier this month signed legislation that included a policy measure to eliminate the March 1 open enrollment deadline for public schools. The law took effect immediately and is now raising questions for districts’ business operations.
Jon Hueser, superintendent at Lu Verne Community School District, said he didn’t appreciate that the legislation was proposed and passed at the last minute of the legislative session.
“There was no discussion anywhere up until that point of eliminating it,” Hueser said. “So that to me is kind of backhanded. If you are going to make such a major change, you shouldn’t be doing that at the last minute and expect everyone to be OK with it.”
Iowa school districts will be expected to return per-pupil funding to the state if students opt to transfer out of a district after classroom counts are complete. On the flip side, school districts receiving transfer students will not receive any additional funding for the added students until enrollment numbers are tallied for the following school year. Districts on the receiving end can also decline to accept transfer students if classrooms are at full capacity.
Changes to the budget process
Carroll Community School District Superintendent Casey Berlau said the biggest change will be the movement of funds from one district to the next when a student leaves.
“There will be more work to make sure we have accurate records in our student information system because you could see more kids moving multiple times within a school year to a different school,” Berlau said. “You might be paying one district for the first half of the year and another district for the second half, whereas we haven’t had to do that before.”
Hueser said it is still too early to tell how the change will affect enrollment but it will create challenges for the business sector of a district.
“You have basically taken away school boundaries and you have taken away people having to file things on a timely basis,” Hueser said. “We have to file things on a timely basis all the time in education, and now how do you prepare for things when they could move at any time?”
Finalized budgets for school districts to determine funding needs for staffing are due by April 15 but these numbers may need to be based on projected enrollment, according to Tammy Votava, communications director for the Iowa Association of School Boards. The number of transfer students is currently unknown and will remain in limbo after school districts have issued contracts.
“Eliminating the open enrollment deadline could negatively impact the ability for districts to hire the necessary teachers based on enrollment, and to budget responsibly,” Votava said in an email response to Iowa Capital Dispatch.
Mike Beranek, president of the Iowa State Education Association, said in many Iowa communities, public schools serve as a major economic engine. While it’s too early to predict the effects of the new law, he said, if a building or district were to close, that community will suffer greatly — especially in rural communities.
“Any laws that are established that can affect the financial health of a school district should be deeply considered before being signed into law,” Beranek said. “I can tell you that in some of our rural school districts losing 20 students to a neighboring school district would cause great financial harm to the district losing students. So instead of seeking ways to punish our public schools and our communities, we should be seeking ways to enhance and build up those schools.”
Since 2011, the number of students to open enroll has increased, with the largest number of transfers taking place during the fall of 2019 and 2020. Of the 327 school districts, 54% saw a net open enrollment decrease in 2021, according to the Iowa Association of School Boards.
Beranek said even though all schools teach to the same educational standard there is a potential for learning loss to occur during the transitional period between transferring.
“So the potential for bouncing around from district to district could be detrimental to that student’s academic achievement,” Beranek said.
Iowa’s previous open enrollment laws offered parents or guardians the ability to move their child from a district after the March 1 deadline if the child experiences repeated harassment that the district can not adequately address, also known as presenting a “good cause.”
Parents have the ability to appeal any denied open enrollment requests relating to harassment, serious health conditions or a district’s failure to tend to a student’s academic needs.
Superintendent Todd Lettow said the CAL Community School District in north-central Iowa has never stood in the way of anyone who wanted to transfer, so he doesn’t see the lack of an enrollment deadline changing much for the district.
“My philosophy has always been try to create a school and an environment that kids want to be at and that issue of kids wanting to leave kind of takes care of itself,” Lettow said. “If you hold people against their will, so to speak, they probably aren’t going to be as happy and it is a negative to the cultural climate you trying to create.”
Hueser, the Lu Verne superintendent, said the change has turned enrollment into the “wild west,” putting a huge burden on school districts.
“Now they [students] can move multiple times, all the time and that is not good,” Hueser said. “I don’t understand why they made the change because I don’t know what was wrong with what was there.”
Lawmakers’ thoughts on cutting the deadline
During the legislative debate, Democrats raised concerns about the disproportionate implications the measure would have on small, rural school districts’ budget process.
“It’s unfortunate because I really believe that this could destroy our small schools,” Rep. Mary Mascher, D-Iowa City, said. “They can’t handle that kind of fluctuation. That is a problem when they can’t identify what their enrollment would be in the fall.”
Republicans argued parents in metropolitan areas feel “trapped” in a district when controversial curriculum is released after the deadline. “Like they haven’t been told honestly what the curriculum was and some schools are keeping that controversial curriculum after that March 1 deadline, then parents don’t have an option,” Sen. Brad Zaun, R-Urbandale, told KCCI-TV.
On the House floor, Rep. Gary Mohr dismissed concerns about district budgets. “This is a people provision – giving parents and students the choice, not the school district and it is not about money,” he said.
Beranek of ISEA says he has gone across the state visiting classrooms in Iowa and has seen nothing but true high-quality education that is the envy of many states around the country.
“I strongly believe that it will take our community leaders, our faith-based leaders, our civic leaders, our business owners to help our elected officials understand that a continued attack on public education will have dire unintended consequences for schools all across Iowa and for the communities where those schools reside,” Beranek said. “I believe it will take the entire community to step up and show their support for our educators and our schools and to work together to collectively voice the majority of the people in the state of Iowa.”
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