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In-Person Learning And School Choice Advance In Iowa Legislature

Iowa Capitol
John Pemble
IPR file
The Iowa Senate could debate both school bills as soon as this week.

Bills that would require in-person learning and create a system to direct public funding to private schools are moving to the Iowa Senate floor where votes could happen later this week.

The Iowa House and Senate are advancing bills that would help Gov. Kim Reynolds accomplish her priorities for education for the 2021 legislative session.

A bill advancing to the full Senate (SF 160) would mandate that schools offer a fully in-person learning option, even as the COVID-19 pandemic continues. A similar proposal (HF 103) passed out of a House subcommittee Monday.

Another bill moving to the full Senate (SF 159) expands the state’s charter school system, creates scholarship accounts for students in low-performing schools and would end some restrictions on open enrollment to a different public school.

Timing With Vaccine

About a quarter of school districts are in learning model that’s less than fully in-person, according to the Iowa Association of School Boards. That includes the state’s largest district, Des Moines Public Schools.

Legislation moving ahead in the Senate would require schools to offer 100 percent in-person learning and would give districts about two weeks to make the change once its passed.

At Linn-Mar Community School District, elementary students can attend in-person full-time, but board member Brittania Morey told a Senate subcommittee there are too many students in the high school to do the same safely.

“We have more students and smaller classrooms in urban districts,” Morey said. “It’s just not as easily feasible to bring everyone back.”

Gov. Reynolds and other supporters say a full-time option would benefit working parents and students falling behind academically.

Sen. Brad Zaun, R-Urbandale, said online learning is not working for some kids. Full-time in-person classes would help them catch up.

“Not to mention mental health benefits to getting kids in schools,” Zaun said in a Senate Education Committee meeting Monday. “Not to mention the mandatory reporters in our schools to kind of check on our kids.”

Zaun said there would still be a waiver process for schools to go online if there is a surge in the local infection rate or if too many staff members are in quarantine for the school to remain open.

Senate Democrats and the state’s largest teachers union, the Iowa State Education Association, want the legislature to hold off on issuing a mandate for 100 percent in-person learning until educators are vaccinated.

Teachers are up front in the next phase of COVID-19 vaccinations starting in February, but Gov. Reynolds has said there may not be enough supply to complete the process before schools are required to go fully in-person.

Sen. Claire Celsi, D-West Des Moines, said the proposal disregards the welfare of school workers.

“We’re kicking them in the teeth and saying go back to work no matter what the safety risk is to you,” she said.

The full Senate could vote on the proposal later this week.

Debating Accountability

Another bill advanced by the Senate Education Committee Monday would redirect public funding for education by creating a new charter school system and a version of school vouchers. It also makes it easier to open enroll in a different public school.

The bill creates a “student first scholarship” program. The state would use money that would have gone to a family’s public school to create an account that can be used to help pay for private school.

There are no income limits to qualify for an account, but families must come from a public school that’s in the bottom performance level according to federal ratings. There are 34 schools with an estimated 10,000 students that are currently under that “comprehensive” rating in Iowa.

The charter system created by the bill would allow groups such as nonprofits to open charters that would be publicly-funded like any other public school, but would operate independently from the local public district.

Senate Republicans who support the proposal said it would give parents power to hold their home schools accountable because they could choose to leave.

“When schools are failing they need an alternative, they need a say, they need to be empowered with a choice,” said Senator Jim Carlin, R-Sioux City. “I don’t think any parent whose only option is a failing school is at fault for wanting a better education for their kids.”

Democrats on the committee said the bill diverts money from schools already strapped for resources.

“If we have a failing school, the focus should be on fixing the school so that the education of every child is lifted up,” said Sen. Herman Quirmbach, D-Ames. “This bill goes in exactly the wrong direction. It is enhancing the privileges and advantages of the few at the expense of the many.”

Senate Democrats scheduled a Zoom town hall for Tuesday night as part of an attempt to build opposition to the bills.

The school choice package is also moving quickly in the Senate and could come up for debate as soon as this week.

Grant Gerlock is a reporter covering Des Moines and central Iowa