Fact Checker

Fact Checker: Did Iowa Department of Education have input on Reynolds' education proposals?

Democrat senator's statements accurate in some ways, falls flat in others

Gov. Kim Reynolds concludes her Condition of the State address on Jan. 12 at the Statehouse in Des Moines. (Associated P
Gov. Kim Reynolds concludes her Condition of the State address on Jan. 12 at the Statehouse in Des Moines. (Associated Press)

About a month into the new legislative session, two proposed education measures have caused controversy at the Iowa Statehouse as Democrats criticize their colleagues across the aisle for the “freight train” push toward Gov. Kim Reynolds’ signature.

Among the critics is Sen. Sarah Trone Garriott, D-Windsor Heights, a Senate Education Committee member who decried the bills in a Jan. 24 news release.

Analysis

• Claim 1: “SSB 1065 would divert taxes for public schools to private schools and SSB 1064 would make Iowa schools unsafe during the pandemic,” Trone Garriott said in the news release.

Graded a C

Senate File 159, the first piece of legislation referred to as SSB 1065, passed the Senate Jan. 28 and was sent to the House for consideration.

If signed into law, the proposal would expand school choice by shifting funds from public school districts to private or charter schools. The legislation also would create taxpayer-funded private school tuition scholarships for public school students identified by a federal program as “low-performing.”

The proposed scholarships would cost Iowa’s public school districts $2.1 million in state aid and property taxes the first year, according to an analysis from the nonpartisan Iowa Legislative Services Agency. Districts would lose $3.1 million in the second year, and $3.8 million the third year.

Continuing onto the second part of this first claim that “SSB 1064 would make schools unsafe during the pandemic,” it should be noted that Reynolds signed the bill into law Jan. 29.

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Senate File 160 mandated K-12 schools offer all students the option to return to 100 percent in-person learning beginning Feb. 15.

Critics of Reynolds’ legislation say returning students to school in the midst of the pandemic could further spread the virus among Iowa families and endanger lives. During a Jan. 27 online town hall, Fort Dodge-based infectious disease physician Dr. Megan Srinivas said a statewide in-person mandate “could be one of the most dangerous things we do during this pandemic.”

Trone Garriott said in an email to Fact Checker the bill doesn’t provide additional funding to enact public health safety measures, nor does it offer flexibility for districts unable to social distance with 100 percent of students in the classroom.

Governor’s Office spokesman Pat Garrett pointed to recommendations from federal health officials on Jan. 26 that urge schools to return to in-person learning, saying a “preponderance of available evidence” indicates classrooms can continue in-person teaching safely as long as mask-wearing and social distancing are enforced.

There’s not a clear consensus among the scientific community on the risk of in-person learning. Based on the available research, a previous Fact Checker gave Reynolds a B for an earlier statement that COVID-19 spread is not happening in schools.

We give this first claim a B.

• Claim 2: “Both pieces of legislation were written and filed without any input from the IA Department of Education.”

Iowa Department of Education officials “had the opportunity to review bill language and provide feedback” before the legislation was filed, Education spokeswoman Heather Doe told Fact Checker. She did not specify when the department reviewed the proposals.

Trone Garriott sent the Fact Checker team a letter penned by Senate Education Committee Ranking Member Sen. Herman Quirmbach, D-Ames, recounting interactions with Department of Education officials in early January.

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In a Jan. 5 meeting with two department legislative liaisons, Quirmbach wrote, he asked for details on proposed legislation from the governor to mandate full-time in-person instruction, which would become SSB 1064. According to Quirmbach, neither official had any knowledge of the proposal.

He scheduled a virtual meeting with Department Director Ann Lebo on Jan. 8 and asked the same questions he had posed to the other department officials. Quirmbach wrote that Lebo indicated the governor’s office “had not communicated or consulted with her department up to that point.”

Lebo “had only heard of the proposal when the governor mentioned it in response to a reporter’s question at a news conference,” the letter states. “There was no indication that the governor had discussed the proposal with anyone from the department before the news conference, nor at any time up to the date of the Zoom call.”

Quirmbach says in his letter he had no information whether there was communication between Department of Education and the governor’s office after Jan. 8.

SSB 1064 was introduced on Jan. 20, nearly two weeks later.

It may be true the Iowa Department of Education was not aware of the proposed legislation before Jan. 8, or even later, but Quirmbach or Trone Garriott didn’t offer any evidence that department officials had no chance to review the legislation before it was filed. Because the Department of Education contradicted this statement, we give this claim a D.

Conclusion

The Iowa Legislative Services Agency found SSB 1065 would divert public dollars — about $2 million in the first year alone — from Iowa’s public schools.

Though infectious disease specialists in Iowa argue SSB 1064 increases risk of COVID-19 infection among students and their families, federal public health officials say they are not finding a high prominence of transmission in schools. That brings the overall claim down a grade.

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However, the second claim that the Iowa Department of Education had no input in the legislation falls flat.

Overall, these claims earn a C.

Criteria

The Fact Checker team checks statements made by an Iowa political candidate/officeholder or a national candidate/officeholder about Iowa, or in ads that appear in our market.

Claims must be independently verifiable.

We give statements grades from A to F based on accuracy and context.

If you spot a claim you think needs checking, email us at factchecker@thegazette.com.

This Fact Checker was researched and written by Michaela Ramm of The Gazette.

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We value your trust and work hard to provide fair, accurate coverage. If you have found an error or omission in our reporting, tell us here.

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