Lawmakers say Iowa schools must give students in-person option

Governor says she's eager to sign bill, which takes effect quickly

Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds looks on after delivering her Condition of the State address before a joint session of the Iowa L
Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds looks on after delivering her Condition of the State address before a joint session of the Iowa Legislature, Tuesday, Jan. 12, 2021, at the Statehouse in Des Moines, Iowa. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

DES MOINES — Legislation requiring K-12 school districts to offer all students a 100 percent in-person learning option gained final approval Thursday from Republican majorities in the Iowa Capitol, sending the measure to a governor who said she was eager to sign it into law.

Republicans, including Gov. Kim Reynolds, support the proposal, saying students and families should have the option of being in the classroom full-time during the COVID-19 pandemic, even in districts where local school and public health officials have not deemed that to be safe.

Democrats opposed the measure, saying local leaders — not state lawmakers — know best how to operate their schools with education and safety of students and staff in mind.

“There’s so many benefits from our kids being in school,” said Sen. Brad Zaun, R-Urbandale, listing concerns about students falling behind in their education, possible mental health issues for isolated students and students at risk of abuse not being at school and under the supervision of mandatory reporters.

Statehouse Democrats argued that everyone is in agreement that students should be in Iowa’s classrooms, but said it should be handled safely and at the discretion of locally chosen leaders.

“Is there a single person in Iowa that believes kids should not be in school right now? Do you know of anyone who thinks that? But forcing kids back in the middle of an uncontrolled global pandemic is dangerous,” said Sen. Joe Bolkcom, D-Iowa City.

During the pandemic, some schools have operated either entirely online or by using a hybrid model, in which students are in classroom some days and online remotely other days.


The legislation would require those districts to permit any students who wishes to attend in-person every school day.

During debate on the proposal in the Iowa Senate, Democrats read correspondence from school administrators, nurses and teachers who suggested the measure would put school staff and students in danger.

“We want kids back in school, but we want it done safely. It is not being done safely now, and this bill would make it worse,” said Sen. Rob Hogg, D-Cedar Rapids.

The legislation, Senate File 160, passed the Senate on a party-line vote, with 29 Republicans supporting and 18 Democrats opposing. Later Thursday, the Iowa House passed the measure on a mostly party-line, 59-39 vote, with Democrat Wes Breckenridge, of Newton, joining Republicans in support.

“This legislation just passed the Iowa House and Senate, and I look forward to signing it into law,” Reynolds posted Thursday night on social media.

Once she signs it, the law takes effect quickly — envisioning schools offering the new option within weeks.

Public funding for private tuition

On Thursday evening, the Senate approved Reynolds’ sweeping K-12 education legislation, which establishes taxpayer-funded scholarships for private school tuition for students in struggling public schools, expands the state’s charter school program and eliminates diversity programs that prevent students from open enrolling out of the district.

The legislation passed with only Republican support, and three Republicans — Dawn Driscoll of Williamsburg, Tom Shipley of Nodaway and Annette Sweeney of Halden — joined Democrats in opposition.

Republicans who supported the legislation argued it will provide more options for students who are struggling in public schools to seek educational opportunities at private schools.


The legislation makes scholarships available to students only in schools that are receiving assistance under a federal program that identifies schools in need of “comprehensive support and improvement.”

“These children are being failed by cracks in our system and this is my attempt to stand in the gap on their behalf,” said Sen. Amy Sinclair, R-Allerton.

Democrats argued taxpayer funding should be focused on the public education system, and that lawmakers should explore ways to help struggling school districts — not create new public funding mechanisms for private schools.

“Our public schools are not failing. We are quitting on them with this bill. It’s a quitter’s bill. We’re moving on to the new shiny object,” said Sen. Liz Mathis, D- Hiawatha.

The bill, Senate File 159, advances to the Iowa House. Speaker Pat Grassley, R-New Hartford, said that House Republicans do not plan to advance the bill immediately, but also said their pause should not be interpreted as lacking support among their members.

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