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Charter School Expansion Advances In Iowa Senate

Iowa’a Capitol after a late afternoon spring rain.
John Pemble
IPR file
The bill would allow state-funded charter schools established either by a local school board or by a nonprofit founding group unaffiliated with the district.

A bill creating an independent system of publicly-funded charter schools took another step forward in the Iowa legislature Thursday.

The Senate Education Committee advanced a charter school bill (HF 813) that would fulfill one part of Gov. Kim Reynolds' school choice agenda for the legislative session.

Under the bill, the state would fund charter schools established either by a local school board or by a nonprofit founding group unaffiliated with the district. The bill already passed in the House and is now available for debate in the Senate.

Sen. Herman Quirmbach, D-Ames, opposes the plan. He said local school boards should have a say in how taxes are used for education.

“That, I think, is a dangerous precedent to remove our public education funds from the oversight of the people who pay those dollars and their elected representatives,” said Quirmbach, the ranking Democrat on the committee.

Quirmbach pointed out that there are only two charter schools in Iowa under the current program where they must be organized by local school boards.

Sen. Amy Sinclair, R-Allerton, argued that shows the current program isn’t working.

“The very fact that even our existing public schools cannot tolerate the rules that come along with it is exactly why we need this bill,” said Sinclair, who chairs the Senate Education Committee.

Sinlclair said independent charters could offer programs that target students underserved by public schools.

There is no estimate on what the system may cost. A fiscal analysis by the Legislative Services Agency states that the number of potential applications is unknown.

In January, the Senate passed Gov. Reynolds' school choice package which included not only charter school expansion but also a form of school vouchers for families in low-performing schools.

Instead of taking up the package as passed by the Senate, the House considered its components separately. Speaker Pat Grassley said there was enough support among Republicans in the House to pass several parts of the Senate bill, including measures to allow more open enrollment, but not the voucher program.

“We just were unable to find a path forward on that, but we feel very strongly about the charter piece as well as the other pieces of the bill that we did in a couple different bills,” Grassley said.

COVID Funding for Schools Advances

Schools that held in-person classes would benefit the most from a supplemental funding package (HF 532) that is also advancing in the Iowa Senate.

The bill would give $27.2 million in coronavirus relief to schools based on the number of days they held in-person classes and the number of students who attended.

Quirmbach criticized the bill for not paying schools for students who chose online learning.

"There were certainly a lot of expenses that school districts incurred in serving those students,” Quirmbach said. “In a lot of cases they had to be provided with laptop computers that they did not have. They needed to be provided with hotspots or other ways of accessing the Internet that they might not otherwise have had.”

Sinclair said the bill puts a priority on compensating schools that pushed to restart classes face-to-face during the pandemic.

“This bill is designed to get at those school districts who were having children in classrooms,” Sinclair said. “(Districts) who had additional staffing costs from cleaning, who had additional PPE costs and all of the costs that are increased at the building.”

The bill passed in the Education Committee and now goes to the full Senate. It already passed in the House.

Grant Gerlock is a reporter covering Des Moines and central Iowa