Democrats decry 'freight train' of school choice bills

Floor debate expected Thursday on governor's priorities

The rotunda is seen at the Iowa Capitol in Des Moines on Thursday, Dec. 19, 2019. (Andy Abeyta/The Gazette)
The rotunda is seen at the Iowa Capitol in Des Moines on Thursday, Dec. 19, 2019. (Andy Abeyta/The Gazette)

DES MOINES — Overmatched legislative Democrats made a last-ditch stand Wednesday against what one leader called a Republican “freight train” intent on moving two controversial education measures on a fast track to Gov. Kim Reynolds for her signature.

Republicans voted 13-8 to clear the final hurdle in the Senate Appropriations Committee for floor debate Thursday on legislation to provide state-funded “students first” scholarships to families sending their children to private schools and a separate measure requiring K-12 school districts to provide 100 percent in-person classroom instruction along with the online and hybrid learning models adopted as safety measures for students, teachers and staff during the pandemic.

Across the rotunda, House Republicans prepared for a debate Thursday on the in-person instruction bill with the school voucher debate expected in the near future as well.

“They are fast-tracking the most radical attack on public education that this state has ever seen,” said Senate Democratic Leader Zach Wahls of Coralville. “To see Republicans decide to put ideology before our public education system is incredibly disappointing. I’m really hopeful that the House is able to stop it because it looks like they’re running like a freight train over here.”

Prospects for House Democrats to derail either Senate File 159 or Senate File 160 appeared doubtful with Republicans in control of the Legislature with a 59-41 advantage in the House and a 32-18 majority in the Senate and a Republican governor asking for both bill to be delivered to her desk.

SF 159 is her plan to provide up to $5,200 state scholarships to cover tuition and other expenses for parents who wish to send their kids to private or charter schools. Democrats questioned the timing of the measure, given that setting the new spending threshold for K-12 schools traditionally is the first budget issue lawmakers take up — not a partisan measure they contend siphons money from public schools at a time they are facing additional expenses for COVID-19 safety concerns.

Sen. Tim Kraayenbrink, R-Fort Dodge, chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee, said he has not been part of the state aid discussions since the governor proposed a $20 million boost in her Jan. 12 Condition of the State address. Though he didn’t know where the K-12 funding issue stood, he said it was not a concern as it relates to the bill seeking to give parents more options for educational instruction.


He also refuted Democratic claims that SF 159 was “defunding” public education, noting K-12 schools get 43.5 percent of the state’s nearly $8 billion budget and the last time schools were hit with reductions was during former Democratic Gov. Chet Culver’s time in office. “We’re not going to change our fiscally conservative approach to our budget, which has really over the past years been very, very, very successful,” he said.

However, Democratic committee members rained down criticism on GOP plans to open the taxpayers’ “checkbook” with an unlimited standing appropriation to pay for private education with potentially more than $50 million in public dollars — an approach they charged will actually limit parents’ choices.

“You’ve been chipping away at our public school budgets every year like paper cuts and now you’ve moved on to a machete with this bill that defunds public schools to give money for private-school education directly into a parent’s pocket,” said Sen. Janet Petersen, D-Des Moines.

“I can’t believe we’re sitting here today focused on a private education budget where you’re going to put money directly into parents’ pocketbooks with no taxpayer watchdog looking at how they’re spending that money,” she added. “This is where your priorities are for public education — first bill out of the gate, not the public education budget, the private education budget on taxpayers. This is ridiculous.”

Democrats said Iowa families in rural areas are most at risk under a GOP school choice bill they say has polled overwhelming opposition and does not have Iowa-based data indicating the approach would improve student achievement.

“You have no state data to show this will work across the state the way that you intend,” said Sen. Liz Mathis, D-Hiawatha. “There is no data produced in the state of Iowa that supports this radical idea. You are stumbling into the unknown with this, casting taxpayer dollars to the wind on what is an experiment.”

Under the proposal, which Reynolds’ staff estimates initially would cost up to $3 million, about 10,000 students attending 34 Iowa public schools that are receiving certain federal support would qualify for the scholarship fund.

Reynolds’ 65-page bill proposes three elements of school choice. Her bill:

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

• Creates a charter school program;


• And allows students to transfer out of schools that have a voluntary or court-ordered diversity plan.

SF 159 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.

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 but exempt from most state education regulations. The bill funds the charter program by shifting funding from the public school in which any charter school student lives to the charter school instead.

And the bill creates a mechanism by which 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.

Senators also are expected Thursday to debate SF 160, a bill that would require Iowa’s public and non-public schools to provide a 100 percent in-person instruction option for parents and students, but still allow a waiver process through the state Department of Education in case a district is hit with a viral outbreak.

The proposal would take effect no later than the second Monday after enactment and would be in effect until the June 30 end of the current fiscal year. Parents and students would be given at least five days to decide what kind of instruction they wish to receive, according to the legislation.

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