Republicans in the Iowa Legislature are moving quickly to approve bills that would allow tax dollars that support public schools to be diverted to private schools, and further limit the control local school boards have over the schools in their districts.
Gov. Kim Reynolds listed both actions as top priorities in her Condition of State speech earlier this month.
On Monday, the Senate Education Committee passed Senate Study Bill 1065 on a vote of 8 to 7. The bill, which was proposed by the governor, would create “a student first scholarship program” — a type of school voucher program that allows tax dollars that would normally support public school to be spent on private school. Two Republicans — Annette Sweeney of Alden and Chris Cournoyer of LeClaire — joined the committee’s five Democrats in opposition to it.
The bill would create so-called “education savings accounts” (ESA) that would allow parents to redirect that amount a school district is spending per-pupil to the school of their choice to cover tuition, if their student is attending school is “identified for comprehensive support and improvement under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act.”
ESAs are the current vehicle favored by school voucher advocates, because they allow states to provide public funds to private religious schools as well as secular private schools.
“When I have competition it improves me as a businessperson,” Sen. Brad Zaun, a Republican from Urbandale, said as the committee considered the bill on Tuesday. “I believe that this is a huge step forward for the students and the parents of the state of Iowa to have an opportunity.”
Comparing schools to businesses that will be improved through free market competition has been a common rhetorical strategy of school voucher proponents since vouchers were first introduced in the Milwaukee school system at the beginning of the 1990s. But it was unconvincing to an Iowa City student who spoke via Zoom at the committee meeting.
“A school that is suffering from lack of resources or is under-serving its students would be better suited to receive sufficient funding than to lose students to wealthier districts and private schools,” Paras Bassuk, a senior at West High School, said.
The bill would also allow for the creation of charter schools that are largely exempt from control by a local school board.
Speaking in opposition to the bill, Betty Andrews, president of the Iowa-Nebraska NAACP, pointed out that charter schools, with their lack of accountability to local boards, have typically led to worse outcomes for minority students.
“This bill would potentially finance a cycle that could lead to segregation of Iowa schools, allowing wealthier families to flee public schools for less diverse charter or private schools and reducing funds for poor and minority students,” Andrews told the lawmakers.
“School choice started because people of color were tired of their kids being stuck in failing schools,” Sen. Amy Sinclair, a Republican for Allerton, said, pushing back on the idea that school choice would disadvantage minority students in Iowa — even though it has yet to show its promised result in any large school district since it was first introduced in Wisconsin three decades ago.
Sinclair is the chair of the Senate Education Committee.
SSB 1065 would also eliminate the restrictions on open enrollment that five school districts have established. Des Moines, Davenport, Waterloo, Postville and West Liberty Public Schools will limit student transfers via open enrollment if those transfers might undermine racial and economic diversity at a school.
“There is solid research that shows that having a diverse group of people from socio-economic backgrounds in the same building, in the same classroom actually helps improve student achievement,” Iowa Association of School Boards lobbyist Emily Piper explained during a Iowa House subcommittee hearing on a companion bill to SSB 1065 last week.
SSB 1065 faces opposition from school districts, school boards, teachers groups and civil rights organizations. Chair Sinclair was not impressed.
“We’re talking about giving back to parents the right to hold accountable the systems that are in place for their child’s education,” she said. “How dare we say we know better than parents when we’re talking about the needs of the child that they have loved and raised.”
The committee also passed Senate Study Bill 1064, which would require all school districts to offer 100 percent in-person instruction as an option, by the second Monday after the governor signs the bill into law.
Districts could continue to use a hybrid instructional model, which combines in-person and online instruction to limit the number of students in classrooms, as long as they also provide all in-person instruction for students whose parents request it.
Restricting the number of students in a classroom is intended to limit the spread of COVID-19, and protect faculty and staff who may be in higher-risk categories for the virus, as well as the potential for schools to serve as vectors of infection for the wider community.
Both WHO and the CDC recommend that schools not return to in-person instruction until an area’s 14-day positivity rate in COVID-19 tests is 5 percent or lower. Only one of Iowa’s 99 counties, Marshall, had a 14-day positivity average below 5 percent on Tuesday. Five other counties had 14-day rates between 5 and 6 percent.
“I really think we should slow this process down to allow awareness to build, to allow the details to be examined more carefully and really to take the full measure of this,” Sen. Herman Quirmbach, a Democrat from Ames, said during committee discussion of SSB 1064.
Quirmbach noted that new variants of the COVID-19 virus that spread more easily have began to appear.
“The schools are mandated to change their plans, take on additional efforts at greater risk to their personnel,” he said. “This is not the time for the heavy hand of state.”
But both Reynolds and Republican leaders in the Iowa Legislature have made it clear that they feel the benefits of in-person instruction outweigh any potential for increased virus spread.
Sen. Zaun said he “constantly heard from parents pleading to get their kids back in school” while he was knocking on doors during last fall’s election campaign.
“Parents, we’ve listened to you, and help is on the way,” Zaun said.
The bill faces unified opposition from school boards and teacher groups. It passed the committee on a party-line vote, 10 to 5.
During her news conference last week, Gov. Reynolds was asked if teachers and school staff would be vaccinated for COVID-19 before schools will be forced to offer all in-person instruction.
“I don’t know,” Reynolds replied. “I can’t guarantee that, because I don’t know what we’re going to get on doses and it’s always subject to change.”
Teachers and school staff are included in Tier 1 of Phase 1B of the state’s vaccination plan. Phase 1B is scheduled to begin receiving the first of two rounds of doses of the COVID-19 vaccine starting on Feb. 1 (those who receive the Pfizer vaccine will need a second dose 21 days later, those who received the Moderna vaccine will need a second shot 28 days later).
The governor did caution during her news conference that everyone in Tier 1 will not be able to be vaccinated immediately, due to a lack of available vaccine in the state.
“Iowa ranks 46th nationally — 46th nationally in the amount of doses allocated to our state — near the very bottom of the list,” Reynolds said. “And in fact we are currently receiving only 19,500 doses of vaccine each week.”
The governor said she did not know why Iowa was receiving so few doses of the vaccines.