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Iowa House and Senate pass competing education bills

Reflection of Iowa's Capitol from the golden glass windows of the Wallace Building.
John Pemble
IPR file
Competing education bills have passed the Republican-controlled House and Senate.

The Republican-controlled Iowa Senate has passed an education bill (SF 2369) that advances several priorities outlined by Gov. Kim Reynolds at the start of the legislative session, including requirements for schools to make library catalogs and classroom materials available for parents to review.

It comes one day after the House passed its own education bill (HF 2577) that includes similar transparency rules for school districts.

But the passage of competing bills means Republican leaders in the House and Senate must now figure out whether they can craft a compromise that would pass both chambers.

That includes determining the fate of Reynolds’ key proposal for a voucher-style program that would provide scholarships worth around $5,300 per year for up to 10,000 students which could be used to pay private school tuition.

The plan passed in the Senate but was omitted by the House.

The scholarships would be available to students with individualized education plans and any others whose families earn up to 400 percent of the federal poverty level, which is around $111,000 for a family of four.

Sen. Amy Sinclair, R-Allerton, said the program is meant to make a private education affordable for what she called low and moderate income families.

“This is not a bill designed to undermine public education. I and many of my colleagues on this side of the aisle have our own children in public schools,” Sinclair said. “Plain and simple, this bill is about parental rights.”

Sen. Jim Carlin, R-Sioux City, raised controversies over school mask requirements, diversity and equity programs, and book challenges that have polarized school board meetings in recent years. He described private schools as a potential refuge for conservative families who think school policies violate their beliefs.

“The children don’t belong to state or the government, and boundaries have to be asserted and defended,” Carlin said. “And we’re now at a point where parents are saying, ‘We have had enough.’”

Democrats accused Republicans of taking steps that will weaken the state’s public school system. The legislature approved a 2.5 percent increase in state funding for schools, which Democrats said was too little at a time of high inflation. Sen. Jackie Smith, D-Sioux City, said diverting money away from public schools through private school scholarships would make matters worse.

“Until we’re willing to provide adequate funding for the public system, we should not create a private school entitlement program that would inevitably grow and will never disappear,” Smith said. “And we shouldn’t be doing it with public funds. Public dollars need to be used for public schools.”

Sen. Sarah Trone Garriott, D-Windsor Heights, said the Senate bill promotes a double standard when it comes to rules for school admissions and transparency. Private schools would not be subject to new rules for sharing classroom materials and would be allowed to keep selective admissions policies in place.

“Even for those families who would choose a private school, their child may not be accepted if they have a learning disability, or bad grades, or behavior challenges, or because of their religion, or gender or sexual identity,” Trone Garriott said.

The Senate bill passed by a vote of 31-18, with all but one Republican voting in favor and all Democrats voting in opposition.

Gov. Reynolds told reporters Wednesday that she’ll continue to push for the scholarship program.

“I think it lifts all of education up. I think it’s a positive thing. I don’t think it’s anything that other schools should be afraid of because a strong public school system is also fundamental to our state and the success of our state, so they can coexist together,” Reynolds said.

The Senate proposal changes a provision meant to draw support among rural lawmakers in the House. It would hold back around 30 percent of the funding that would have followed a student to their public school. But instead of reallocating that money to some of the smallest districts in the state, as Reynolds proposed, the Senate bill would add it to a fund that rewards districts for sharing staff such as social workers or special education directors. School resource officers would be added to the list, as well.

Sinclair said around 78 percent of Iowa districts currently participate in the shared function program. It remains to be seen whether the change will influence support for the proposal in the House.

House and Senate closer on 'school transparency'

Under the Iowa House bill, teachers would have to post the materials they use in class, which they could do through platforms like Canvas or Infinite Campus. If a new book or video is used, the list would have to be updated within seven days.

Similar ideas are wrapped into the Senate’s proposed “Parent or Guardian Bill of Rights.” The proposal would require schools to make library catalogs available to parents online or in-person. School districts would have to adopt classroom management software that would allow parents to review classroom curriculum.

Schools would have to make sure students don’t see or check out certain books if their parents request it, under a provision included in both the House and Senate bills.

The Senate would go farther by also prohibiting schools from allowing students to access any books or other materials that are considered “sexually explicit” without written permission from a parent.

Senate Democrats said they were willing to go along with the proposed transparency rules and offered a failed amendment that would have included that section of the bill but not state-funded scholarships.

In the House, Democrats called proposed requirements for teachers to list all of the books and articles they use to support their lessons an unfunded mandate and a burden for teachers who are already under strain.

Rep. Sue Cahill, D-Marshalltown, said spending time updating lists of materials for parents would take away from the time they spend with students.

“It could mean my at-risk students who get small group intervention time will miss time because I need to sub for a teacher who needs to update materials,” Cahill said. “It could mean students get more generic lessons without adjustments to meet individual needs of students in the classroom.”

Reynolds seemed to downplay the differences in how the chambers take on the transparency issue, saying they are “not that different” and that conversations are still happening.

There are more differences between the two bills. Both would require students in high school American government classes to take the U.S. citizenship test. The Senate would make a score of at least 70 percent a requirement for graduation, as Reynolds’ initially proposed, while the House does not make the test a graduation requirement.

The Senate bill also wraps in other education proposals which have passed separately in the House. That includes a bill that removes a test for prospective teachers (HF 2081) and a proposal that strengthens reporting requirements and licensing penalties for teachers accused of sexual misconduct (HF 2567).

Grant Gerlock is a reporter covering Des Moines and central Iowa