After mentioning the topic in her condition of the state address, Gov. Kim Reynolds began her attack on public schools in earnest this week with two bills that would shift public tax dollars away from public schools, and create an unsafe working environment for educators and students.
The Iowa Senate will consider one bill proposing vouchers and an aggressive charter school expansion, and another dealing with getting kids back into schools in person. Neither provides additional support or guidance regarding COVID-19.
On Monday morning the Senate discussed the 65-page Senate Study Bill 1065.
The bill provides for three big things: a scholarship/voucher for students in non-public schools, the creation of a new charter school program and allowing students in diversity programs to transfer out.
The bill specifies that the students who would receive the scholarship/voucher would be those who would otherwise be enrolling in schools identified to qualify for support under the Every Student Succeeds Act.
For new charter schools, two models would be provided.
Under one, a school board can apply to create one in an existing district. Under the other, a “founding group” can apply to the state board for approval to start a charter school that operates independent of any public school district.
In the third part of the bill, schools with voluntary or court-ordered diversity programs must allow open enrollment. Currently, a superintendent can deny the request if they find the action will negatively impact the district’s implementation of the diversity plan or court-ordered desegregation.
Organizations like the Iowa State Education Association oppose both bills and have created an online alert to encourage Iowans to contact elected officials in an effort to combat SSB 1056.
Last week, ISEA released this statement: “No one wants to be back in-person more than educators and, while we are still reviewing the bills, our biggest concerns are ensuring the health and safety of students and school employees. We also want to make sure our public schools have enough resources so all families have access to a quality education no matter where they live.”
The other bill, Senate Study Bill 1064, will be discussed at 2 p.m. Monday, Jan. 25.
That bill requires all schools in the state, both public and private, to provide an option for 100 percent in-person learning. The bill would still allow waivers from the Department of Education if a district experiences a viral outbreak.
The bill would also require school districts and accredited non-public schools to provide parents and guardians the choice of full-time in-person instruction even if remote learning is available. Parents and guardians have five days to decide.
The only exception is if the school has an explicit waiver.
Education advocacy groups have concerns about schools that use the trimester system and how this bill would go into effect in the middle of a term. They also pointed toward how time counts. Language in the bill suggests hybrid days don’t count until a district has a full-time option.
Subcommittee for 1065
In the morning meeting, the overwhelming trend was people from the public speaking against the bill. Those opposition voices were superintendents, teachers, students and speakers from organizations like the NAACP, ACLU, ISEA and those advocating for LGBTQ rights.
The few supporters of the bill focused on the argument about giving parents more choices and that private schools are good in terms of student outcomes.
However, most detractors pointed out that choice for some will take away choice for many others, particularly in rural areas where fewer charter and private schools exist. They also pointed out that Iowa’s open enrollment already gives parents choices about where they send their children.
Many also pointed out the various negatives for students and overall education when resources are specifically diverted to private schools.
Sen. Herman Quirmbach, a Democrat from the district including Ames, said research on charter schools is mixed in terms of academic success, and he suggested that the approximately 280 participants who tuned into the Zoom meeting were the tip of the iceberg in terms of Iowans with opinions about this bill.
Another big problem is the millions it would divert from public education, and many people questioned why public money should go toward private schools with little accountability.
“The costs would be pretty staggering.” -Phil Jeneary, Iowa Association of School Boards
“The costs would be pretty staggering,” said Phil Jeneary, the government relations director of the Iowa Association of School Boards. “We calculated if all eligible students chose to take these vouchers that the cost to the state would be nearly $54 million.”
The idea of discrimination came up multiple times, both blatant and as a natural result of admissions policies, school policies and the direction of funding. This also touched on the part of the bill that changes the diversity programs.
Betty Andrews, the president of the Iowa-Nebraska NAACP, said data shows that charter schools don’t do much to improve the academic performance of Black and Hispanic students.
She said the provision regarding diversity plans will also stand in the way of allowing schools to embrace desegregation and make it harder for those schools to continue those efforts.
“This bill would potentially finance a cycle that could lead to segregation of Iowa schools.” -Betty Andrews, President, Iowa-Nebraska NAACP
“Resources should be allocated according to need,” Andrews said. “This bill would potentially finance a cycle that could lead to segregation of Iowa schools, allowing wealthier families to leave public schools for less-diverse private and charter schools and reducing funds for poor and minority students.”
Keenan Crow, the director of policy and advocacy for One Iowa, also had discrimination concerns, particularly where it involves admissions for LGBTQ students and the job security of LGBTQ staff.
One Iowa conducted a study to determine if Iowa’s 181 nonpublic accredited schools would discriminate against LGBTQ students.
Crow said 75 percent of the 176 schools studied met at least one of the four potential discrimination criteria.
“Now, these non public schools have every right to teach their religious principles as they see fit, right, they have every right under Iowa law,” Crow said. “However, there’s nothing that obligates taxpayers to provide support for those institutions that intend to discriminate.”
Some concerns were about the basic quality of education in Iowa if more funds are diverted from public schools.
Paras Bassuk, an Iowa high school senior, said, “Over my 13 years in the Iowa public school system, I have witnessed consistent budgetary cuts to departments and extracurricular activities. The underperformance of public schools is a symptom of legislation like this which strips our schools of the necessary tools to serve its students. Facilitating the further drain of resources from public schools is clearly not a decision that benefits Iowa youth.”
And yet, the two Republican senators, Sens. Amy Sinclair, District 14, and Brad Zaun, District 20, recommended the bill pass.
In particular, Zaun pointed to his own experience sending his children to nonpublic schools as evidence that it’s a good option. He said he agreed with other speakers about allowing parents and students to go to whatever school they think is best.
“I’m just a business person,” Zaun said. “And I know that when I have competition, it’s improved me as a business person.”
Subcommittee for 1064
During this afternoon meeting, a little less than 100 people joined in to voice their support or opposition, or simply to ask the Senate to consider more information before moving forward with making schools go in-person.
Many of the opponents focused on the safety of students, teachers and other school staff, as well as the people in the community around them. They cited increasing infection rates nationwide, and two new strains of the coronavirus.
“In my view, this is just the wrong time to proceed with this,” said Sen. Herman Quirmbach. “President Biden has put on the table a plan, over the next 100 days, to try to get more of our public schools open. And unlike this plan, he’s actually proposing to put some money behind it for PPE, for ventilation modification, for vaccinations, for social distancing. I think it’s time for us to just not rush back into this.”
He was outnumbered, though. The two Republicans on the subcommittee recommended passage for the bill on the basis that, during a global health crisis, kids aren’t succeeding in school as much as they have in years past.
Sen. Brad Zaun also pointed out that many parents are currently struggling to arrange childcare when they have to work.
“That doesn’t mean that there’s parents out there that would prefer to have their kids continue the online for whatever reason that would be,” Zaun said.
Senator Tim Goodwin, District 44, argued that it’s simply what some parents want, and also supported the legislation.
Photo By Gage Skidmore