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Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
DES MOINES — Education policy affecting K-12 schools, including creating a “parental bill of rights” and a voucher program allowing families to use public money for private tuition, was front and center Wednesday at the Iowa Capitol.
Up for discussion were legislative proposals that would:
• Create a parents bill of rights to guarantee parents’ access to curriculum, information related to teachers and other school workers, and records relating to their student; and to prohibit requiring any student to engage in any instruction or activity that involves content that is obscene as defined by state law.
• Expand a state program that provides grants to teachers and add some focus to small, rural schools; provide an accelerated path a teacher’s license; and authorize districts to use their funds to create a student loan forgiveness program for new teachers.
• And, under a sweeping proposal from Gov. Kim Reynolds, expand the program that uses taxpayer funding for private school tuition assistance, require schools to publish a catalog of all curriculum and library materials online and require schools to establish a process for addressing parents’ concerns about those materials.
A packed committee room, plus dozens more who participated virtually, discussed the governor’s bill. Earlier in the day, Reynolds made a pitch for her bill during a news conference.
“I think informed parents make informed choices,” Reynolds said, referring to the transparency piece of her proposal. She added, on the taxpayer funding for private school tuition, “If (a public school) doesn’t reflect your values, then as a parent, you should have an option. And it shouldn’t just be for wealthy people that can afford to send their child to the school that they want to.”
At the hearing, many parents, private school students and advocates for school choice spoke in favor the taxpayer-funded tuition assistance. The legislation was advanced to the full Senate Education Committee.
“We Iowa taxpayers fund education in the first place for children. It’s not for buildings, it’s not even primarily for school personnel. It’s for the kids,” said Chuck Hurley, with the Family Leader, a conservative Christian advocacy organization.
Advocates for public education expressed concern about what the funding of private tuition could mean for the future of public education, and that the taxpayer-funded tuition assistance does not come with the same degree of oversight as does public education funding.
“If you’re going to accept the king’s coin, you should follow the king’s rule. That doesn’t happen in this bill,” said Melissa Petersen, with the Iowa State Education Association, the state’s largest public education union.
Parents bill of rights
The proposed parents bill of rights received widespread support, from both Republicans and Democrats on the legislative panel, as well as advocates for education and parents. The measure was advanced to the full Senate Education Committee.
Sen. Amy Sinclair, a Republican from Allerton and chair of the Senate Education Committee, said the bill effectively puts into state law many practices that already are taking place and gathers into one place the current court rulings and federal regulations.
“We want to bring it all into one place to talk about that parents are ultimately in the driver’s seat in their child’s education,” Sinclair said.
Sen. Herman Quirmbach, a Democrat from Ames, a professor at Iowa State University and the top Democrat on the Education Committee, said he supports the legislation and its intent of keeping parents involved in their children’s education.
“Certainly we want parents involved in their children’s education. There’s no question about that whatsoever,” Quirmbach said. “You can’t do that if parents are not informed. … We need to have schools and parents working together, and parents need to have that information.”
A number of parents attended the hearing to express concerns with books in school libraries. Nationwide, there has been a push by some parents who want the removal of some books they deem to be obscene or graphic. While the books vary, they typically involve LGBTQ characters or are written by LGBTQ authors, and the objections are over passages that describe sexual acts.
Some of the parents who attended the hearing asked lawmakers to change the state’s definition of obscene in order to make the use of those books illegal.
Quirmbach and Sen. Jeff Taylor, a Republican from Sioux Center, explained that would be challenging and potentially troublesome because the state definition of obscene was compiled using years of case law, including U.S. Supreme Court rulings.
The Senate Education Committee approved with bipartisan support proposals meant to address teacher shortages.
Quirmbach said he likes the proposals, but added that another way to help schools to attract and retain teachers would be to provide more state funding so districts could pay higher salaries.
On the school funding front, Reynolds has proposed a 2.5 percent increase in general state funding to K-12 public schools. That would be an increase of roughly $154 million. Senate Republicans have proposed a 2.25 percent increase. Democrats have proposed a 5 percent increase, which would be just less than $300 million in new funding.
Historically, general state funding to K-12 schools increased an average of 5 percent annually over the first 38 years under the current funding formula, according to data from the state’s nonpartisan fiscal analysis agency. Since 2011, when Republicans regained at least a portion of control over the lawmaking process, that average annual K-12 funding increase has been 1.9 percent.
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