IOWA LEGISLATURE

Gov. Reynolds proposes school choice - charter schools, private school scholarships, ability to transfer out of districts

Republicans float 100 percent, in-person instruction option

Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds lays out her plans for Iowa charter schools and private school scholarships during her Jan 12 Con
Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds lays out her plans for Iowa charter schools and private school scholarships during her Jan 12 Condition of the State address at the state Capitol in Des Moines. She sent a 65-page bill to the Legislature Wednesday outlining her plans. (Bryon Houlgrave/Des Moines Register via AP)
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DES MOINES — Two major education pushes favored by Gov. Kim Reynolds and majority GOP legislators — expanding school choices for Iowa parents and students and providing 100 percent in-person instruction for those who want it — will start getting Statehouse consideration next week.

Reynolds’ 65-page bill, released Wednesday, proposes three elements of school choice, which she highlighted in her Condition of the State address earlier this month. Her bill would:

• Establish state funding for students in struggling public schools who wish to attend a private school.

• Create a charter school program.

• Allow students to transfer out of schools with a voluntary or court-ordered diversity plan.

“This legislation will help every child receive a quality education, regardless of income, and no matter their ZIP code. It has the potential to raise the quality for all schools, public and private,” Reynolds said in a statement.

Reynolds’ bill proposes a state-funded, “student first” scholarship program, that would be available for any students at public schools receiving support under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, which provides money to schools where students are not reaching achievement bench marks.

The dollar amount for the scholarships is not specified in the bill. That amount, presumably, would be worked out during the legislative process.

The bill also creates a charter school program. Charter schools are public schools that are exempt from most state education regulations. The bill funds the charter school program by shifting funding from the public school district where the student lives to the charter school he chooses to attend.

Transfer out

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The bill creates a mechanism whereby students in districts with diversity programs can transfer out. Some districts with diversity programs — including the Des Moines district, the largest in the state — do not allow students to transfer out.

“Many parents can’t afford private school. And because some of our larger districts prohibit open enrollment, they won’t let you transfer to another public school. One parent I talked to said that a school administrator actually recommended that she buy a house in the neighboring district if she wanted her son to go to school in-person. We need to fix that,” Reynolds said during her Condition of the State address.

“School choice shouldn’t be limited to those who have the financial means or are lucky to live in a district that’s confident enough to allow open enrollment. So let’s make choice an option for everyone.”

Full-time school

Another priority the governor has advocated is to give parents and students the option of receiving full-time, in-person instruction along with the hybrid and online approaches schools have offered during the pandemic.

Senate Study Bill 1064 — another measure slated for Senate Education subcommittee consideration on Monday — would require Iowa’s public and non-public schools to provide a 100 percent in-person instruction option for parents and students.

It still allow the waiver process through the state Department of Education to adapt to public health and staffing conditions if COVID-19 cases spike in a district.

“It doesn’t change any of what’s already happening,” said Sen. Amy Sinclair, R-Allerton, who requested the study bill. “It just requires that districts offer a 100 percent in-person option for families in addition to whatever they’re doing. If they want to continue to do the hybrid, they can. If they want to continue to do the online, they can. But it just then adds the additional requirement that they have to be willing to provide a 100 percent in-person option as well.”

Teacher reaction

Officials with the Iowa State Education Association, the teachers’ union, issued a statement Wednesday saying, “No one wants to be back in-person more than educators and, while we are still reviewing the bills, our biggest concerns are ensuring the health and safety of students and school employees. We also want to make sure our public schools have enough resources so all families have access to a quality education no matter where they live.”

Presuming the bill passes the GOP-led Legislature and is signed into law by Reynolds, the measure would take effect no later than the second Monday after enactment and would be in effect until June Parents and students would be given at least five days to decide what kind of instruction they wish to receive, according to the legislation.

“We do include some provisions that allows for staffing issues just because I think that’s important for the local districts to be able to respond to the declines in staffing, whether that’s bus drivers or classroom teachers,” Sinclair said.

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“Whatever it is, we need to make that they can respond to that because if don’t have adults in the room to teach them, there’s no sense in having them there,” she added.

Sinclair said the legislation takes under consideration recent data from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that indicated schoolchildren are not COVID-19 “superspreaders” and have not been identified as the reason for school outbreaks.

“We know that that’s the best place for them to learn. We know that from a mental-health perspective it’s the best place for kids to be, and most families want that as well.

“But, that being said, we don’t want to remove some of those other options for families that have unique health needs that would keep them from being comfortable with their kids in school. So we’re just wanting to give this additional option for families who do want their kids back in school,” the Allerton Republican noted.

“That is what the governor requested,” Sinclair said. “She asked for it in a timely manner and so we’re going to try to get rolling on that next week.”

During her Jan. 12 Condition of the State address, Reynolds said the vast majority of Iowa schools have found a way to safely and responsibly reopen, all day, Monday through Friday.

“It’s past time that every district makes that happen. As one parent told me: ‘Options are good. But if some parents get the option to go 100 percent online, why don’t my kids get the option to be 100 percent in the classroom?’

“I agree,” the governor added, “so tonight I am asking the Legislature to immediately send a bill to my desk that gives parents the choice to send their child back to school full time. We can’t wait any longer. Our kids can’t wait any longer.”

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