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Reynolds’ School Choice Priorities Advance In Iowa House

Iowa’s Capitol dome.
John Pemble
IPR file
The legislation passed the Senate as a single bill. The House is considering the proposals as two separate bills.

Bills that would expand charter schools in Iowa and create scholarships that could be spent on tuition at private schools are advancing as separate proposals in the Iowa House.

The school choice bills cover two legislative priorities for Gov. Kim Reynolds that already passed as part of a larger education package in the Senate.

Unlike the current system, the charter school bill (HSB 242) approved by a House subcommittee Tuesday would allow independent groups to create new schools without approval from the local school board.

Applications would go through the State Board of Education and money for the charter schools would come from state funds that would have gone to a student’s public school.

Under the scholarship bill (HSB 243) passed by another subcommittee, families in low-performing schools would be eligible for state-funded accounts that could be spent on private tutoring or tuition.

The program targets public schools labeled for “comprehensive improvement” under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act. That ranking identifies the bottom 5 percent of schools in the state according to student test performance.

Supporters told the subcommittees that education preferences should be left to individual families. Grant Goldsberry of Alleman said the voucher-style scholarships would make private school available to students that otherwise could not afford it.

“We can’t always ensure equal outcomes, but I do believe we can ensure equity of opportunity by allowing all children to go to the school that their families decides is the best for them,” Goldsberry said.

Will Keeps, who runs a youth outreach program in Des Moines, spoke in support of the charter school bill. He told lawmakers Iowa should expand the current system because some students in public schools fall through the cracks.

“We notice through the years that we keep pouring money into public schools and there’s still those thousands of kids that’s not being successful,” Keeps said. “So what do we do? We keep putting money in there? They need other options.”

Opponents said comprehensive improvement schools tend to serve high proportions of students from low-income and non-English-speaking families. They said charters and voucher-style scholarships would divert money away from those and other public schools, making it harder for them to teach disadvantaged students.

“We need to focus on making every single public school as good as it can be, as opposed to investing in a separate tandem organization or a tandem charter school that, frankly, doesn’t have the local oversight,” said Melissa Peterson, a government relations specialist with the Iowa State Education Association.

Shanda Carstens of Panora asked lawmakers to oppose the scholarship program because it allows private schools to use selective enrollment.

“These vouchers can go to schools that can legally pick who they educate,” Carstens said. “With two sets of rules, that’s not competition, that’s the government picking which schools can win or lose.”

Both bills now go to the House Education Committee, which is scheduled to meet Wednesday afternoon. Each bill needs to pass in committee by the end of the week in order to remain eligible for debate as a stand-alone proposal.

Grant Gerlock is a reporter covering Des Moines and central Iowa