116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
IOWA CITY – A group of parents is interested in creating a charter school in the Iowa City school district based on the Montessori educational model.
The effort is linked to an attempt to change state law to grant more local control over charter schools. But the House bill addressing this also would give charter schools the option of not complying with the state's collective bargaining law, injecting the measure with an issue that has stirred controversy nationwide in recent weeks.
Karen Woltman, one of the organizers of the Iowa City proposal, simply wants public school students to have the opportunities her two kids get at a Montessori preschool in North Liberty.
“They absolutely have benefited from being in that school,” said Woltman, of rural Swisher.
The Montessori style takes a child-based approach. Instruction is individualized, interactive and multi-age classes often are used.
There is a Montessori elementary school in Coralville, but it is a private school that charges tuition. Woltman said a charter school would more accessible, and affordable, to families.
The purpose of charter schools is to offer innovative teaching methods, but critics say Iowa's law limits the possibilities. There are just seven charter schools in Iowa, compared with 206 in Wisconsin and 153 in Minnesota last year.
In Iowa, charter schools can be created only from existing public schools and are overseen by the local school board. The teachers and administrators are school district employees. The State Board of Education also must give its approval and has the power to revoke a charter school contract.
Woltman worked with state lawmakers to create a bill that grants more local control. A bill in the House would eliminate the requirement that the state board give its OK and the board's power to reject an application.
But House File 585 goes farther than the changes sought by Iowa City charter school supporters. It allows more entities to apply for charters, including private schools, colleges and universities and private nonprofit organizations.
It also would allow those institutions to opt out of the state code chapters that deal with collective bargaining and the firing of employees. The former would mean employees of a charter school may not have the same rights as their counterparts in traditional public schools to negotiate wages and benefits.
That's a red flag for the teachers union, the Iowa State Education Association, which opposes the bill.
“Allowing the opportunity to opt out indicates that they somehow believe collective bargaining is detrimental to student learning, and we simply do not believe that's the case,” said Mary Jane Cobb, executive director of the ISEA.
The Iowa Association of School Boards also has declared its opposition. Mary Gannon, a lobbyist for the organization, said the bill would exempt charter schools from current state education requirements like the Iowa Core Curriculum.
“If you're going to take tax dollars, you should really be following the same laws as the other … kids in the state who are following them,” she said.
Jason Glass, director of the Iowa Department of Education, said the philosophy behind charter schools is for them to take a different approach.
“If we're going to create a charter school and put it under the exact same restrictions and rules that every other school already has, why would you create a charter school?” he said.
The nation has been watching a collective bargaining standoff in Wisconsin, and a proposal to limit the negotiating rights of public union employees was debated for three days this week in the Iowa House.
Rep. Greg Forristall, a Republican from Macedonia in western Iowa and chairman of the House education committee, said he understands the collective bargaining provision may stir controversy, but he hopes people won't focus on that. He said the intent of the bill is to create more opportunities for students.
He expects the bill to be debated on the House floor in about a week.
Another idea is establishing some sort of mechanism for shutting down charter schools that are unsuccessful. That could be done by the school board, state or possibly an advisory board, Glass said.
Also of note is that while the bill would give school districts more authority to approve a charter school, they would lose oversight in some instances. For example, if a nonprofit started a school, the teachers would be its employees, Glass said.
Woltman said organizers in Iowa City want a charter school with teachers who have collective bargaining rights.
Stephen Murley, superintendent of the Iowa City school district, said the next step in the Montessori discussion is seeing what happens with the state law. He said having local control is important, and he'd be reluctant to endorse a plan that did not include collective bargaining for employees because that could be a disincentive for teachers.
He spoke favorably of charter schools in general. He came to the district this school year from a Wisconsin district with five charter schools, including a Montessori school. Charter schools are about providing opportunities, he said, and are not an indictment on a district's performance.
“It really has everything to do with meeting the needs of the full spectrum of students,” he said.