Republican-backed bill allowing charter schools to avoid local oversight goes to the governor’s desk

Jordan Sellergren/Little Village

A bill preempting the authority of local school boards over publicly funded charter schools is going to Gov. Kim Reynolds’ desk for her signature. Reynolds named this sort of expansion of charter schools in Iowa as one of her top priorities in her Condition of the State speech at the beginning of this year’s legislative session.

Charter school are public schools started by private groups and run by boards of governors selected by those groups. They are funded in the same way traditional public schools are, through funds generated by local property taxes and other tax dollars provided by the state and federal governments. Under current Iowa law, the charters for the schools must be approved by the school board of the district the charter school is in, and school boards provide oversight to make sure the schools are fulfilling the needs of their students.

HF 813, which passed the Iowa Senate on Tuesday and was approved by the Iowa House last month, would exempt private groups from local school board oversight when starting and running a charter school. Groups will be able to apply to the Iowa Department of Education (DOE) for a charter, instead of a school board. Most funding for the school would still come from local property taxes, but the local school board would not have an oversight role if a school has a charter from DOE.

There are currently two charters schools in Iowa, one in Storm Lake and the other in Fayette County. According to Reynolds, more charter school are needed in the state in order to expand educational opportunities for students. The governor’s opinion was echoed on Tuesday by Republican Sen. Amy Sinclair of Allerton, the bill’s floor manager.

“Not all students thrive in a traditional classroom,” she said. “Not all students are on a path toward college. Not all students should be held back to languish at the average.”

Sinclair said the bill “creates a path for parents to have a hand in defining and creating the optimal public school learning environment for their child.”

“We should be reinvesting in our public schools, not starting a completely new system that is certain to decrease public input and which is very likely to fail the students who take a chance on this very risky business model,” Sen. Claire Celsi, a Democrat from West Des Moines, said during the floor discussion before the Senate voted on the bill.

The Legislative Services Agency was unable to determine what financial impact the bill would have in its Fiscal Note on HF 813, largely because it’s unknown how many new charter schools would be founded if groups can obtain their charters from DOE instead of local school boards. But another problem was that the bill lacks specifics regarding funding of a new charter school.

“It is unclear if the initial year of funding will be provided to the charter school through advance funding by the Department of Management, be provided through payments from the student’s district of residence which through open enrollment protocols are typically paid in February and July, or be provided through some other means,” the agency said.

For Celsi, some things are clear regarding the charter school expansion advocated by Reynolds and other supporters of the bill.

“Does it benefit the majority of Iowans? No,” she said. “Does it solve a pressing need? No. Does this solution have a good track record in other places? Decidedly not.”

Democrats offered 10 amendments to the bill, which were rejected on party-line votes, with all Senate Republicans voting against them. Perhaps the most surprising amendment Republicans voted against was one proposed by Sen. Liz Mathis of Cedar Rapids that would ensure charter school employees are mandatory reporters of child abuse, just as teachers and other licensed professionals at traditional public schools are.

Mathis also proposed an amendment that would require charter schools to have school nurses, which was voted down by all Senate Republicans.

An amendment by Senate Minority Leader Zach Wahls of Coralville would have restricted how members of charter schools’ founding groups could potentially profit from the school by prohibiting members and their spouses from having a financial interest in educational services companies. Wahls also proposed an amendment that would have required a majority of members of a charter school’s board of governors be residents of Iowa.

Celsi offered an amendment that would have required charter school boards of governor to hold public hearings that include public comment before adopting their annual school budgets.

Other rejected amendments proposed by Democrats would have required a charter school to have a qualified guidance counselor on staff, and the chief administrator of a school to have the same professional licenses as the chief administrator of a traditional public school.

Another amendment by Mathis would have ensured charter schools require the same vaccinations all other public schools in Iowa do (such as measles, mumps, rubella, hepatitis B and meningococcal vaccines). That amendment was defeated on a voice vote, which allowed Republicans to vote against it without having their names recorded as doing so.

After rejecting all the amendments, all 30 Republicans in the Iowa Senate voted for the bill and all 18 Democrats voted against it. The bill will now be sent to Gov. Reynolds, who is expected to sign it into law.

The first bill the governor signed into law this session also preempted the authority of local school boards. SF 159 requires all school districts to provide 100 percent in-person instruction to any student whose parents request it, regardless of its possible impact on the spread of COVID-19 in a school or a community.

Like she did with the legislation preempting the authority of school boards over charter schools, Reynolds listed the in-person instruction law as a top priority in this year’s Condition of the State speech.

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