116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
Fourth grade was a terrible year in my otherwise happy childhood. The prior year, I’d been diagnosed with Juvenile Rheumatoid Arthritis, and although I enjoyed a brief remission that summer, it relapsed in the autumn with a vengeance. While my condition wreaked havoc on my 9-year-old body, my teacher seemed distant and indifferent.
This lack of compassion affected the way I was received by the other kids in the class. As a result, I became withdrawn and depressed and would frequently come home crying over something another child had said to me, such as “Althea, no one wants to play with you because you mope all the time.” My parents were unsatisfied after speaking with my teacher about their concerns.
“All she said was, ‘I just got a bad class this year,’” my mother recalled. “She did nothing to address the problem.”
Luckily, things improved after that year. I was matched with teachers who were understanding and accommodating. They modeled that empathy to the other students, going as far as gathering a group of several other classes together so I could give a presentation about childhood arthritis and show off the toys I got to use in physical therapy. After the start of fifth grade, I returned to my normal gregarious self, despite continuing to endure the debilitating effects of arthritis.
I’m glad that my fourth grade experience was an anomaly. Had it been the norm, it may have been necessary to my well-being for my family to explore other educational options.
More options may soon be available in the public school system, thanks to the passage of HF 813, a bill signed into law last week by Gov. Kim Reynolds which enhances the public school system in Iowa by expanding the ability to form charter schools.
A charter school is a public school that is formed and operated independently of a school district. While traditional public schools operate within geographical boundaries and have attendance based on where a student lives, charter schools are formed by a “founding group” with a specific mission and vision for its students and community. Attendance is not assigned by residence; it’s chosen by a family that has purposely selected that institution for their child’s education.
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, charter schools “have more freedom over their budgets, staffing, curricula and other operations.” This can allow for more innovative teaching methods and focus on particular areas of study, such as subjects in the STEM fields.
“Iowa needs schools as diverse as the needs of its students, and that’s exactly what this law aims to deliver.” - Gov. Kim Reynolds
Before the bill was signed, a charter school could only be created with the authorization of the local public school district. Perhaps because of this limitation, only two charter schools currently exist in Iowa. With the change in the law, founding groups will no longer be limited to the will of the local school district and instead be able to apply directly to the Iowa Department of Education.
The increased availability of charter schools in the future could be a particular game-changer for students from underserved populations who may be more prone to life-altering circumstances such as incarceration or teen pregnancy. A 2020 report by Max Eden of the Manhattan Institute cites dozens of studies suggesting that charter schools have a disproportionately positive impact on disadvantaged and minority students.
The potential for such positive impact on students in Iowa excites people like musician and activist Will Keeps, president of Starts Right Here, a Des Moines nonprofit dedicated to breaking the cycle of poverty by educating and empowering at-risk youth.
The Starts Right Here building served as a backdrop for the signing of the charter school bill, with several of its participating students in attendance to witness Reynolds’ signing. Keeps spoke with emotion at the ceremony about the importance of removing barriers to choice for the sake of equipping youth with the tools they need to succeed.
“That’s what passing this charter school bill is about,” he said. “It’s to give these kids another option. What’s wrong with that? What’s wrong with making sure these kids have another choice to be successful?”
Despite concerns raised by legislators and activists opposed to the bill, who claim charter schools lack accountability, the language of the charter school bill includes a litany of standards to ensure charter schools meet the expectations that every student deserves. (As an aside, it’s my personal policy to read word for word any state legislative bill that I either support or oppose. This bill is no exception.)
Among the bill’s requirements: Charter schools must provide special education services. They must have the same number of school days or hours as a traditional public school. Their teachers must have the same licensing, their finances will be subject to audits, and their board meetings must be public, as the board itself will be a governmental body. They’ll have to follow all local, state and federal health and safety laws, and be subject to the same prohibitions of discrimination such as race, gender, etc. And they must still have a plan to serve disabled, English language learning and gifted students, as well as students performing below grade level.
When one considers that a charter school must apply to renew their charter no more than every five years, it becomes apparent that charter schools aren’t subject to less accountability than traditional public schools. They’re subject to more.
It’s important to note that at no time has Reynolds insinuated that traditional public schools are failing Iowa’s students. She sees this new law not as a correction of a poor system, but the expansion of a strong one, now with extra options to accommodate unique needs.
“Not all kids are the same,” says Reynolds, “and certainly not all of the circumstances they face. Iowa needs schools as diverse as the needs of its students, and that’s exactly what this law aims to deliver.”
For some, charter schools will deliver better learning. For all, they’ll deliver a better Iowa.
Althea Cole is a Gazette editorial fellow. Comments: email@example.com