IOWA LEGISLATURE

Iowa House bans rejecting open enrollment requests based on diversity

The Iowa State House chamber on Thur. Mar 11, 2016. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)
The Iowa State House chamber on Thur. Mar 11, 2016. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)

DES MOINES — School districts with diversity plans would no longer be allowed to reject open enrollment requests from students who wish to attend a different public school under a proposal approved Tuesday by the Republican-led Iowa House.

The proposal also is one element of Gov. Kim Reynolds’ sweeping K-12 education bill, which also is under consideration in the Iowa Legislature. The House on Tuesdaysplit off the diversity element into a separate bill.

Five Iowa school districts have diversity plans, including Davenport, Waterloo and Des Moines, the state’s largest district.

Rep. Cindy Winckler, D-Davenport, said she was told by a Davenport school official that open enrollment out of the district has “slanted” toward upper-income families. If the proposal became law, the official said, it would limit the district’s ability to meet its diversity goals.

“By eliminating the diversity plan, we eliminate options and opportunities our students have ... and the rich experience of diversity,” Winckler said.

Rep. Phyllis Thede, D-Bettendorf, warned the bill would create “haves and the have-nots.”

“We’ll leave public schools less than,” she said.

Estimated data for those districts show that in the 2020-21 school year there were more than 2,500 students who open enrolled out of Davenport (557), Waterloo (301), West Liberty (54), Postville (20) and Des Moines (1,639).

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Not all applications to open enroll out of a district with a diversity plan are denied if it is offset by a student open enrolling into a district that matches the student’s socioeconomic or English Language Learner status.

However, more than three times more students sought to open enroll out than in.

None of the districts have a court-ordered desegregation plan, and there are no federal requirements relating to a diversity or desegregation plan. The plans are based on income status and, in West Liberty, also includes English Language Learners.

Open enrollment within a school district still would be at the district’s discretion under the House-approved proposal.

Lawmakers were told that the denial of open enrollment requests due to voluntary diversity plans didn’t affect many students, said Rep. Dustin Hite, R-New Sharon. This year, however, Des Moines denied 455 open enrollment requests at a time the district wasn’t bringing students back to the classroom.

“It about the families. It’s about the kids. We have to keep those kids in mind when we’re talking about this bill,” Hite said. “School districts need to understand they are here for the students. The students are not here for the districts. This bill puts those students first.”

The Legislative Services Agency, the state’s nonpartisan fiscal estimating agency, analyzed the legislation and made financial impact projections for the districts with diversity plans. Using recent years’ open enrollment requests to determine how many students may open enroll out of the districts, leading to a reduction in state per-pupil funding, LSA estimated the Davenport school district would lose more than $783,000; Waterloo, $421,000; and Des Moines, $1.5 million.

House File 228 was approved on the strength of majority Republican support, 56-31. It is now eligible for consideration in the Senate, which has already approved the governor’s K-12 bill.

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