A bill aimed at broadening school-choice measures in Iowa is gaining traction with state lawmakers.
The Iowa Senate Education Committee on Monday narrowly agreed to advance the bill, which would provide funds for some students to attend nonpublic schools and create a new charter school system for the state, among several other provisions.
While the bill is expected to undergo some changes as it makes its way through the Legislature, local reaction to the proposals so far have been mixed.
“It’s a good time to have those conversations,” said Iowa Sen. Carrie Koelker, R-Dyersville
The current version of the bill would create a “student first scholarship” program for certain students to attend nonpublic schools. Students who would otherwise attend schools identified for comprehensive support and improvement under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act would be eligible for funds to start kindergarten in a nonpublic school or to switch from public to nonpublic school.
The bill also would create a new charter school system that would allow a “founding group” to start a charter school independently of a district, in addition to allowing school boards to establish programs within their districts. Other provisions address open enrollment of students to different districts, along with other measures.
Members of the Senate Education Committee on Monday voted, 8-7, to advance the bill. Eight Republicans on the committee voted in favor of the bill, while two Republicans joined the five Democrats on the committee to vote against it.
The chamber’s Ways and Means Committee is expected to examine it today.
Iowa Sen. Amy Sinclair, R-Allerton, chairwoman of the Education Committee, told committee members that she is working on amendments to the bill that could be made on the Senate floor but stressed the importance of giving families additional educational options.
Iowa Sen. Pam Jochum, D-Dubuque, a ranking member of the Ways and Means Committee, said lawmakers long have supported the state’s private schools through measures such as School Tuition Organizations, which raise funds for nonpublic school tuition and provide donors with tax credits.
However, further supports for nonpublic schools should wait until legislators have fully funded the needs of the public school system, which she argued legislators have not done.
“Until we really provide the needed funding for what we are obligated to do, and that is to make sure public education is fully funded, then we can start looking at some other options for private schools, but this is not it,” Jochum said. “This is not the answer.”
She also said she was concerned that allowing charter schools to form independently of districts would remove accountability from those schools. The bill does include a provision for state officials to monitor the performance of charter schools.
Stan Rheingans, superintendent of Dubuque Community Schools, said the use of public funds to support private education raises “some red flags” and that there would need to be transparency in how those schools spend public funds.
He also said he worried that allowances for students to spend state dollars on private schooling could expand over time and lead to less funding for public schools.
The proposal also drew opposition from a pair of Dubuque Community School Board members — Kate Parks and Anderson Sainci — who attended virtually the subcommittee meeting on the bill Monday.
“This is going to have a huge negative impact that will disproportionately impact poor, middle-class and our racial (minority) students, so I am totally not in favor of this,” Sainci said.
Kim Hermsen, superintendent of schools for the Archdiocese of Dubuque, said the proposal to provide funds for students to attend nonpublic schools would have limited impacts on public schools.
That portion of the bill only would impact schools identified for comprehensive support, and even among eligible students, it is likely only a small percentage would decide to switch to private education, she said. That likely would not lead to large impacts on school budgets, either.
“We’re certainly interested in it,” Hermsen said. “We have a few of our schools that would have the potential to possibly have some families that would be interested … but right now, (this provision), we would not anticipate would have a dramatic impact on our schools. It could be a handful of parents.”
Koelker said she would like to see all the facts and figures related to how the proposals would impact the budget and the need for those measures.
“I think a quality education is fair for all Iowans,” she said. “I’m a public-school, proud graduate, so I’m not against public or private schools, and I think that that’s going to be the most important discussion, is having those partners around the table to see what the bottom impact is.”