IOWA LEGISLATURE

Iowa's in-person school option starts Feb. 15

Reynolds signs bill while fate of wider proposal uncertain

Gov. Kim Reynolds signs an education bill into law during a ceremony Friday at the Iowa State Capitol in Des Moines. The
Gov. Kim Reynolds signs an education bill into law during a ceremony Friday at the Iowa State Capitol in Des Moines. The bill requires that K-12 schools offer to all students the option of 100 percent in-person learning starting Feb. 15. (Erin Murphy/Gazette-Lee Des Moines Bureau)

DES MOINES — The ink was not yet dry Friday on Gov. Kim Reynolds’ first K-12 education law when she began lobbying for her next school proposal — one that may be short on support.

Reynolds signed into law a requirement that K-12 schools offer to all students beginning in February the option of 100 percent in-person learning, even if districts are not operating completely in-person during the COVID-19 pandemic.

During a ceremony at the Iowa Capitol for signing Senate File 160 into law, Reynolds spoke about that bill but also pivoted to making a push for her other major K-12 education priority this year: A sweeping proposal that creates taxpayer-funded private tuition assistance for students in struggling schools, expands the state’s public charter school program and eliminates diversity programs that do not allow students to open enroll out of the district to another public school.

A Republican state lawmaker said Friday the governor’s school choice proposal does not in its current form have sufficient support to pass the GOP-led Iowa House.

“There are not the votes in the House to pass that bill. There are not the votes in the House Republican caucus, at least now. Not even close,” Rep. Brent Siegrist, R-Council Bluffs, an assistant majority leader and former House speaker, said during the Council Bluffs Area Chamber of Commerce’s legislative Zoom event. “There is a lot of opposition to that language, because of what it would mean long-term for a system of vouchers in the state of Iowa.”

At the signing ceremony, Reynolds highlighted various K-12 education programs that have been created and investments that have been made during her tenure before making the direct pitch for Senate File 159, the proposal she calls her “Students First Act.”

“This is just the beginning,” Reynolds said while signing the in-person learning law, which goes into effect Feb. 15. “The pandemic has put a spotlight on K-12 education across the nation, and while I believe with all my heart that Iowa has the best education system in the country, we’re not perfect. We can do better, and we should.”

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Reynolds and supporters, chiefly fellow Republicans, say the “school choice” legislation would provide more educational options for Iowa students and families, particularly in schools that are underperforming according to metrics in a federal education program.

Critics of the proposal, chiefly Democrats and many public education advocates, have expressed concern it would weaken the state’s public school system by creating more competition for limited state funding.

“I have no desire to defund our schools or prevent their progress. But I will not turn a blind eye to opportunities for improvement where it’s necessary. A strong public school system is imperative, and my education reform bill has the potential to raise the quality of all schools,” Reynolds said Friday. “Every child deserves a quality education, regardless of income and no matter their ZIP code. And when a school is failing a child, parents should have the ability to change the course of their child’s education for the better. We will always look to create opportunities for every single Iowan, including our youngest.”

The Republican-controlled Iowa Senate passed Reynolds’ proposal this week. Three Senate Republicans voted against it, and a fourth voted against it in committee but in favor of its final passage there.

In the GOP-controlled House, Speaker Pat Grassley, R-New Hartford, said the bill will be given consideration, but not immediately.

SF 159 likely will need the support of at least 51 of the 59 House Republicans, since it seems unlikely any Democrats will support the measure. All Senate Democrats voted against it.

“During a pandemic when our schools and teachers have been forced to do even more with less, we should be investing more resources in our public schools than ever before. From ever-increasing class sizes to rural consolidation, it’s clear that we need to invest in the kids in our public schools, not take money away for vouchers,” Iowa Democratic Party chairman Ross Wilburn said in a statement. “Every child in Iowa should have the opportunity to go to a top-notch public school with all the tools they need to be successful. Iowa Democrats will continue to fight for world-class public schools for every child, no matter their ZIP code.”

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