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Iowa House Votes To Expand Charter School System

Iowa’a Capitol after a late after noon spring rain.
John Pemble
IPR file
Republicans say the expanded charter school system will give parents more options to find a school that works for their children; Democrats say it will siphon money away from public schools.

In an after-midnight vote, the Iowa House passed a bill to provide public funding for charter schools run by groups unaffiliated with local school districts.

Under the bill, (HF 813) the State Board of Education would have authority to approve charter school applications from local school boards and from so-called ‘founding groups’ that could operate a school independent from the local school board.

The bill passed after 12:30 a.m. after more than three hours of debate. Republicans suspended House rules to allow a vote after midnight, to proceed without a public hearing requested by Democrats, and to place a “time certain” limit on debate.

Republican supporters said expanding the charter system would give parents more options to find a school that works best for their child and would create more competition for traditional schools.

“We are simply advocating for a proven education option to be made a little bit easier so parents and students can continue to search to ensure they get the best education setting for them,” said Rep. Skyler Wheeler, R-Orange City, the bill’s floor manager.

The charter schools allowed by the bill would not be allowed to charge tuition or teach religion, and must follow non-discrimination laws.

Democrats who opposed the bill said it would siphon resources away from public schools. Rep. Mary Mascher, D-Iowa City, said the charters also lack accountability because neither the founders nor the State Board of Education are elected like local school board members.

“The taxpayers cannot vote the founding group out of office if the private charter fails the students in the charter,” Mascher said. “You know who loses? The students.”

After amendments made Wednesday night, the bill would create five-year contracts for approved charter schools. The majority of a charter school’s governing board members would have to be residents of the area that the school would serve, and all members would have to live in Iowa.

Debate over the charter school bill dragged on into the night as lawmakers considered a stack of amendments.

Democrats introduced more than 20 amendments that failed to pass, including referendum and petition processes to demonstrate local support for a charter, a bond requirement to cover costs if a charter fails and a proposal to require that a founding group have ties to the local school board.

In the middle of floor debate, Republican leaders paused to call an impromptu meeting of the House Appropriations Committee after Rep. Chris Hall, D-Sioux City, indicated a new spending provision was introduced through an amendment. House rules require all appropriations proposals to be approved by the committee.

Republicans approved a motion to end all debate at 12:15 a.m. and advance to final votes on the remaining amendments and the bill itself.

The bill now goes to the Senate, which passed a much broader school choice package earlier this year that includes a version of charter school expansion.

Grant Gerlock is a reporter covering Des Moines and central Iowa