IOWA LEGISLATURE

What are charter schools? This is what Iowa's school choice bill would allow

Cedar Rapids school board, ISEA oppose legislation that would allocate funding away from public schools and to charter schools

An empty classroom is seen at Kennedy High School in Cedar Rapids on Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2021. (Andy Abeyta/The Gazette)
An empty classroom is seen at Kennedy High School in Cedar Rapids on Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2021. (Andy Abeyta/The Gazette)

As the bill that would expand school choice advances through the Iowa Legislature, many Iowans may be asking themselves: What are charter schools?

The bill, Senate File 159, expands school choice by awarding taxpayer-funded scholarships to students in 34 failing public schools — identified by the federal government — so the students can attend a public charter school. When they leave the public school, they take their per-student state aid — which would be over $7,000 this year — to the charter school.

The bill was approved by the Iowa Senate on Jan. 28 and is now awaiting debate in the Iowa House.

In Iowa, charter schools are public, non-religious schools that are created by a governing board or a sponsoring school board. Money that flows into public schools has strings attached. Charter schools, however, have more flexibility with how they spend it.

A charter school can be deemed unsuccessful and closed if it does not meet its stated goals such as improving mathmatic athievement by “x” amount or having “x” amount of students graduate with colege credits.

That would open up an accountability conversation with the school board or state Board of Education about why those goals weren’t met and how it can be fixed, said Margaret Buckton, lobbyist for the Urban Education Network of Iowa.

Charter schools can also close because of low enrollment or financial difficulties and can even close abrupbly mid-school year, Buckton said.

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Charter schools can also be chartered by for profit entities. Buckton said it’s unclear what regulations they might be excused from such as open meetings and public records law, and the public might not have any participation in the charter school board.

The proposed law would potentially allow charter schools to waive more regulations. For example, a charter school with an arts focus may offer marching band, ballet and show choir as part of its curriculum. The school could then ask for a waiver excusing physical education requirements because it is offering it through those other courses, Buckton said.

Charter schools cannot discriminate when it comes who who is allowed to enroll, Buckton said. However, “it doesn’t mean everyone stays in the charter school if they cannot live up to the potential requirements,” she said.

A lot of charter schools require parents to sign a contract such as promising a certain number of volunteer hours.

“How do we provide support for students who may have one low income parent working two part time jobs without health insurance?” Buckton said. “Their plate is completely full and they can’t give 20 hours a week to the school.”

Charter schools are rare in Iowa.

Currently, only two operate — Storm Lake/Iowa Central/Buena Vista Early College Charter High School in Storm Lake in northwest Iowa and West Central Charter High School in Maynard in northeast Iowa.

This may be because Iowa public schools have a lot of school choice already -- students are able to open enroll between public districts, Buckton said.

Iowa also has a graduation rate of 91.6, the highest in the coutnry, according to the Iowa Department of Education.

In contrast, Wisconsin has 244 charter schools, Illinois has 145 and Michigan has 300.

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“Charters start in places where they’re concerned the public system isn’t working,” Buckton said.

West central

The West Central Community School District in Maynard is small — about 20 students in each class.

Making their high school a charter school allowed the district to offer students more opportunities, such as dual-credit classes, counselor Steve Milder.

It is governed by the locally elected school board.

In the last seven years, the district has had 129 of its 131 students graduate with college credits, and 30 percent of its students have graduated with associate of arts degrees.

Some students have even graduated with community college degrees before graduating from high school, Milder said, taking classes through the Northeast Iowa Community College in Calmar and other area community colleges.

But already, more Iowa high school students graduate per capita with college credit than in any other state, according to the National Rural Education Association.

The state Board of Education holds charter schools accountable, Milder said. Every four years, the charter school has to go to Des Moines and convince the board it is meeting its goals and can keep its charter, which which West Central last did in 2019.

West Central Charter’s goals, Milder said, are to increase the percent of its graduates who complete postsecondary training; continue to raise test scores for students in reading, math and science; provide special needs and at-risk students with the opportunity to develop individualized courses of study working toward a high school diploma; and increase the percentage of students who graduate with a dual concentration of vocational and academic credits.

Opposition

The Cedar Rapids Community School District and Iowa State Education Association oppose Senate File 159.

Under the bill, charter schools would be under the authority of the appointed State Board of Education in Des Moines instead of locally elected school boards.

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The Cedar Rapids school board sent a letter to legislators last month opposing the bill.

“The establishment of charter schools serves to reallocate resources away from serving all students to serving the few,” the letter said.

“Charter schools have little accountability to the public. While public tax dollars provide their funding, there is not necessarily oversight by the local, publicly elected board of directors in that school district. This gives control of tax dollars to a few people, who may not be representative of the local school district.”

The Iowa State Education Association supports Iowa’s existing charter schools, President Mike Beranek said in a statement.

However, any additional charter schools should remain public and accountable like they are under current law (Chapter 256F), Beranek said.

Senate File 159, as it is currently written, doesn’t comply with the same standards and the transparency set in place by the existing law, he said. WHAT CHANGES ARE IN THIS LAW?

“From our perspective, any flexibility in curriculum and ideas for innovation can be accomplished through out existing public charter school law,” Beranek said in a statement. “ISEA supports the structured and equitable approach to public education that exists in current law.”

Comments: (319) 398-8411; grace.king@thegazette.com

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