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DES MOINES — Legislation that would give more time to bring criminal charges against pedophiles who sexually abuse minors won unanimous approval in the Iowa Senate on Wednesday.
Also Wednesday, the Senate voted 30-18 along party lines to send Gov. Kim Reynolds legislation that would allow for an expansion of charter schools that backers say will foster innovation and more educational choices.
House File 813 was one of the governor’s education priorities for the 2021 session.
Statute of limitations
Senators also gave final approval to legislation now headed to the governor’s desk that would allow parents to teach their teenagers how to drive, removing the requirement that young drivers receive certified instruction.
In a surprise move, senators voted 48-0 to amend Senate File 562 to include a provision that would eliminate Iowa's statute of limitation on criminal actions involving sexual abuse of children.
The change does not cover civil actions — where someone could sue for damages — which was included in a separate bill that stalled earlier this session.
Under current Iowa law, criminal charges in child sex-abuse cases must be brought within 15 years after the victim turns 18, or until he or she turns 33.
“Colleagues, now is the time for us to remove the statute of limitations for those who sexually abuse children,” said Senate President Jake Chapman, R-Adel, who noted if the change is signed into law, it “will have an endless impact on thousands of Iowans.”
The provision was part of an amendment to a bill that removed the statute of limitations dealing with sexual exploitation by an adult providing training or instruction, such as a counselor, therapist or school employee, and for victims of incest and human trafficking.
“There is a group of Iowans who have not received the protection they deserve and, while we are too late for many Iowans, it is never too late to do the right thing,” Chapman said.
The bill, he said, will address “growing moral and criminal violation against a vulnerable population in our society” that “has been occurring for generations and will sadly into the future.”
Sen. Janet Petersen, D-Des Moines, who has long championed the issue, spoke in support of the Senate’s action, calling it a “step in the right direction” even though it doesn’t address civil actions and won’t help all victims.
“These criminals must be held accountable,” Chapman said during floor debate. “Whether it’s five days from the time of their crime or 50 years from the date of the crime, someone who has committed sexual abuse against a minor should not get a free pass simply because the victim does not come forward within an arbitrary deadline.”
In the past, senators have approved legislation proposing to change Iowa’s statute of limitations for child sexual abuse laws only to have it stalled in the House.
This year, House File 566 cleared a House Public Safety subcommittee, and the amended Senate bill now returns to the House for consideration of Wednesday’s changes.
Proponents of removing the statute of limitation say it will give prosecutors more time to build on evidence instead of having cases automatically disqualified because they had timed out.
During subcommittee testimony earlier in the session, victim advocates said Iowa lags behind other states when it comes to aiding childhood victims of sexual abuse by adults — oftentimes family members, teachers, clergy or other close associates as well as serial abusers.
Representatives of defense attorneys and businesses expressed concern about the potential for liability from an allegation made about an incident that occurred decades ago without evidence still available for a defense.
During the charter-school debate, Sen. Amy Sinclair, R-Allerton, said provisions of House File 813 would allow a founding group to apply directly with the state Department of Education to form a charter school.
It also retains the current method of applying to the local school board to create a charter school.
State funding would follow the student, similar to open enrollment, and the new program would be financed through a standing unlimited general fund appropriation.
Sinclair called the proposal “a good bill,” noting that “not all students thrive” in a traditional classroom.
“House File 813 gives local public school boards a chance to be innovative in instructional delivery,” said Sinclair, adding that it also “creates a path for parents to have a hand in defining and creating the optimal public school learning environment for their child.”
Republicans turned down 13 amendments from Democrats during Wednesday’s floor debate.
Sen. Claire Celsi, D-West Des Moines, said Republicans were forging ahead with a plan funded by an unlimited state appropriation with a concept that doesn’t have a good track record or a pressing need to take money away from Iowa’s highly touted public education system.
“If history is a guide, we will be creating a parallel school system with a different set of rules,” she said, pointing to what she considers a lack of transparency, oversight and accountability in the charter school legislation.
“I have heard from exactly zero constituents who think this is a good idea,” Celsi said. “Today is a really sad day for Iowa. We’re trashing our once-sterling reputation for excellence in education and allowing unbridled capitalism to take over — warning signs be damned.
“We are creating a monster of unknown size, of unknown appetite and writing the monster a blank check,” she said. “This entire concept is wrong for Iowa.”
In separate action, senators voted 33-15 to pass the driver’s education change.
Current Iowa law requires teenagers pursuing a driver’s license to spend at least 20 hours behind the wheel: six with a certified instructor and 14 with a parent or guardian.
Senate File 546 would eliminate the required hours with an instructor.
Also Wednesday, the Senate modified and sent back to the House a sweeping education policy bill that would double from $250 to $500 the qualified classroom expenses that a teacher can deduct from his or her Iowa income tax beginning with the 2021 tax year.
It also expands the 25 percent tuition and textbook tax credit by doubling the allowed expense to $2,000 for each qualified student and extending the credit to home-schooled students — a change carrying an $11.1 million implication in fiscal 2022.
Current Iowa law allows taxpayers to claim a non-refundable tax credit equal to 25 percent of up to $1,000 in qualified school expenses paid by a taxpayer for each dependent attending an accredited K-12 public or non-public school.
The bill also called for the state Department of Education to establish a Flexible Student and School Support program to implement evidence-based practices in innovative ways to enhance student learning, well-being and postsecondary success.
The flexibility would grant exemptions to school districts from various regulations, such as the school start date and the requirement they offer 1,080 hours or 180 days of instruction.
It also included a number of sports-related provisions, such as eligibility to participate in extracurricular activities after transferring from one school to another.
Before returning the bill to the House, senators included new provisions to give school principals the authority to waive face- covering requirements if it’s in the best interest of the student’s educational well-being, but made the action subject to local school board approval.
The revised bill also would require schools to administer the Pledge of Allegiance every day in grades one through 12.
Finally, senators also modified and returned to the House an “education training” bill — House File 802 — that prohibits the teaching of divisive concepts, such as political ideology, one’s moral character being determined by one’s race or sex, that the United States and Iowa are fundamentally or systematically racist and sexist, and that meritocracy or traits such as a work ethic are racist or sexist.
The bill originally was targeted at regents’ universities, but amended to include all governmental agencies and political subdivisions that provide mandatory staff or student training — but senators narrowed its focus.
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