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Iowa House Bill Would End Open Enrollment Limits At Some School Districts

Iowa House lawmakers sit at a table in the Law Library of the Iowa Capitol.
Grant Gerlock
Rep. Ras Smith (left) and Rep. Dustin Hite hear public comment on a bill that would get rid of the limits some school districts place on open enrollment.

A bill advanced by an Iowa House subcommittee would eliminate restrictions on open enrollment made in the interest of preserving school diversity.

Five Iowa school districts — Des Moines, Davenport, Waterloo, Postville and West Liberty — operate under voluntary diversity plans that limit affluent students or native English speakers from enrolling out unless another student of similar socio-economic status enrolls in.

Under a bill in the Iowa House (HSB 64), schools would no longer be allowed to deny open enrollment requests to satisfy those plans. The districts say without boundaries on open enrollment their student populations would move more quickly toward segregation along racial and economic lines.

Rep. Dustin Hite, R-New Sharon, supports the proposal and said the legislature should make it easier for any student to change schools.

“We talk about local control all the time. I think parental choice is the ultimate local control,” said Hite, who is also chair of the House Education Committee which will be next to take up the measure.

Opponents of the bill at a subcommittee hearing Wednesday said, if it were to become law, it would likely make academic achievement gaps worse by speeding up the departure of white students from schools with growing rates of diversity and poverty.

“The divide between those who have and those who don’t have much has never been greater,” said Rep. Ras Smith, D-Waterloo. “Our job is not to exacerbate that but to reduce that.”

Waterloo Community Schools superintendent Jane Lindaman said in a comment submitted online opposing the bill that students are limited from leaving the district, but if they want to change schools they can move within the system.

“Diversity plans do not eliminate open enrollment out, they simply balance open enrollment out to prevent white flight,” Lindaman said. “If you overturn our ability to balance open enrollment requests, we will become less diverse, with higher poverty percentages and higher minority percentages.”

Drew Klein of Americans for Prosperity, who supports the bill, said concerns about what's best for the district should not limit the choices families are allowed to make.

"We want to talk about systems and institutions and school buildings and what works to optimize for the whole, rather than looking at what works for individual families and what they're needs are going to be," Klein said.

In spite of limitations on open enrollment, districts with voluntary diversity plans have still seen their percentages of white students fall, while their rates of students living in poverty have risen.

In Des Moines Public Schools, the percentage of white students fell from 50 percent in 2011 to 35 percent in 2021, according to the Urban Education Network of Iowa. Over the same time, the percentage of students who qualify for free and reduced price meals increased from 66 percent to 78 percent.

Expanding options for open enrollment is part of a larger effort by Gov. Kim Reynolds and Republicans in the legislature to expand school choice in the 2021 legislative session.

In her Condition of the State speech Reynolds said she also wants to require schools to offer full-time in-person learning during the pandemic, create savings accounts for families to pay private tuition and make it easier to create public charter schools.