DES MOINES, Iowa – On Monday afternoon, the Iowa Senate Education Committee passed SSB 1065, a bill with several school choice measures proposed by Gov. Kim Reynolds, by an eight to seven vote.
If passed, the bill would:
- Create a “Students First Scholarship” for students entering kindergarten or currently attending a public school that has been identified under the Every Student Succeeds Act as needing comprehensive support. Families can use the scholarship for various qualified educational expenses such as nonpublic school tuition, curriculum fees, materials, cognitive skills training, tuition for vocational and life skills training, etc.
- Allow the state board of education to approve charter schools established by local school districts or independent founding groups.
- Eliminate the use of voluntary diversity plans as the basis of denying open enrollment.
- Creates a streamlined data reporting system for schools
- Creates a program innovation and student support system
- Allows for teacher salary supplements and teacher leadership salary supplement flexibility
- Expands the tuition and textbook tax credit and educator expense deduction
- Amends the methodology for determining enrollment for a school year
- Amends Iowa’s open enrollment law by creating a couple of good cause notification waivers based on student achievement and school improvement.
- The bill also specifies that a school corporation is entrusted with public funds to improve student outcomes, including academic achievement and skills proficiency.
State Senator Claire Celsi, D-West Des Moines, spoke in opposition to the bill.
“Student First Scholarships are nothing more than a voucher. Vouchers are nothing more than a way to drain public education dollars out of the state coffers and pour them directly into unaccountable private schools and charter schools,” she said.
State Senator Jackie Smith, D-Sioux City, criticized the charter school provision in the bill.
“The establishment of charter schools just serves to reallocate resources away from serving all students to serving a few. Our public schools need additional funding, not fewer resources. This legislation does not address the needs of the majority of Iowa family,” she said. “Iowa already has several options for school choice, including open enrollment, and the ability to go to a private school if a family chooses to pay tuition.”
State Senator Eric Giddens, D-Cedar Falls, defended the use of voluntary diversity plans to deny open enrollment. Waterloo Community Schools is one of the school districts that he represents and one of the five school districts in Iowa that does this.
“Currently, the diversity plans that we have, through state law, provide districts with a tool to maintain a certain level of a minimum level of diversity in our school districts. Diversity is our strength,” he said.
“Maintaining diversity in our school districts is important. Diversity prepares students to succeed and work in a diverse world,” Giddens added.
State Senator Sarah Thone Garriott, D-Windsor Heights, also criticized the bill’s changes to Iowa’s open enrollment law.
“Our public schools already have open enrollment options that are sensitive to the needs and opportunities of those local districts. My neighbors have never expressed any frustration about the open enrollment process. I went through the process myself to keep my kids in the same school when we move two blocks over our school district line. It worked just fine. We did not feel trapped. I don’t see the point of this legislation,” she argued.
State Senator Brad Zaun, R-Urbandale, argued for parental choice in education.
“There has definitely been throughout this country, an improvement (in) student performance when parents get the opportunity to choose what their best educational opportunity is,” he said.
Zaun added that the current law that allows school districts to deny open enrollment using voluntary diversity plans is not about diversity but serves as a cap on open enrollment. He says he receives “hundreds” of emails from parents complaining about the law. Zaun also noted that he has seen students’ lives change as a result of parental choice in education noting how the states’ school tuition organization (STO) tax credit has helped numerous Iowa students.
“I stand with the parents. I stand with the students to give them an opportunity to find the best school of their choice. To vote against this is telling parents who are stuck in a failing school district, ‘Sorry, you have no choice,'” he added.
State Senator Herman Quirmbach, D-Ames, questioned how smaller Iowa communities would support charter schools. He was also concerned about outside groups forming charter schools.
“The new thing about charter schools here is the possibility of forming those charter schools outside the control of the local school board. Not accountable to the local school board, but yet still getting a share of the local property tax monies that otherwise would go to the public schools. So you’re taking the taxpayers money, but you have no accountability to the local officials that those taxpayers elect,” he said.
State Senator Celsi rose again to complain about a private school’s ability to turn away students, particularly a Christian school’s ability to turn away students based on their faith.
“if you’re trying to get into a private school, the the barriers just get taller. There’s (sic) transportation and distance limitations. There’s (sic) academic requirements and transcripts required. And there’s (sic) less civil rights protections, which is actually addressed in the bill. It basically says, ‘orry, all the private school rules apply here,'” she said.
Celsi said she looked at Des Moines Christian School’s website and Pella Christian School’s website.
“And right on their website (sic), it basically says we don’t discriminate against race or gender or national origin. But religion is not included in there. So does that mean you have to be a Christian to attend? Does that mean you have to be, according to their website, a Bible-reading, church-going family? I don’t know,” she added.
State Senator Jim Carlin, R-Sioux City, says the child’s best interest should be lawmakers’ guide when considering this bill.
“If we let it stay the way it is. Parents don’t have a choice. Now they’re paying the bills because they’re paying sales tax and property tax. They’re paying income tax. They’re paying corporate taxes on all the goods and services they buy in Iowa. They’re paying (but) they have no say where any of that money goes when it concerns their children. I personally believe that when schools are failing, they need an alternative,” he stated.
He also pointed out that competition helps schools improve.
“If you want something to remain stagnant, don’t introduce any competition. It’s not going to go anywhere. There’s no incentive to raise the bar. Where’s the incentive to raise the bar?” he asked.
State Senator Amy Sinclair, R-Allerton, managed the bill and pointed to data she collected that supported school choice.
“I have 18 empirical studies that look at the academic outcomes for choice participants and have those 18 studies. All but two, there were two, that showed negative effects, two that showed no effect, and 14 that showed positive impacts on participating students. That’s the data of empirical studies,” she said.
Sinclair also stated that she researched 33 empirical studies that looked at how school choice programs impact public schools. She said of those 31 said school choice programs had a positive impact on public schools. She then noted 28 empirical studies that showed that school choice programs had no negative fiscal impact.
“I heard a lot about race and about segregation, you know, I probably just imagined it, but Jim Crow popped into my mind, and it just infuriates me, because here’s the truth. Here’s the truth – school choice started because people of color were tired of their kids being stuck in failing schools,” she argued.
She said nine out of ten empirical studies she researched addressing racial segregation stated that school choice positively impacted racial segregation.
Sinclair pointed out that 11 empirical studies related to a student’s civic engagement and their future. No study found a negative impact from a school choice program, and eight studies found school choice had a positive effect.
She criticized Democrats, in particular State Senator Celsi, for inferring research shows school choice programs don’t work.
“So I don’t know what information. I don’t know what studies. I don’t know what research you’re looking at. But I have empirical studies, not just somebody’s feels, I have empirical studies that say the exact opposite,” Sinclair argued.
She pointed out that this bill does not target families with means but families without the means to pursue school choice.
“It’s the height of condescension that I have to hear that families of color are going to choose something less than the best for their child when given the opportunity. Or that I have to hear that the families in poverty are going to choose less than the best option for their children if they’re given the opportunity,” Sinclair stated.
She addressed the criticism from Democrats and public school advocates that public schools were not consulted.
“You said we didn’t ask any school districts what their opinions were here. I don’t care what the school district says unless the school district is saying I want what is best for every single child, not necessarily what’s best to protect my system. Yes, my child goes to a public school, and my public school serves my child, and my child will stay there because it is the best choice for him. But come on, please work with me and let’s open up that opportunity for choice to families who right now aren’t given a choice at all,” Sinclair said.
She added that lawmakers must acknowledge that parents know what is best for their students.
“I will never, ever, ever back down from giving every child in this state, every child in this state the best possible future. I will never back down from letting parents… 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 and are creating to be a member and contributing participant in our broader communities? How dare I say I know better than they do?” Sinclair argued.
The bill will likely see numerous amendments from both supporters and opponents filed before it goes to the Iowa Senate floor for debate.
The bill also had a subcommittee meeting on Thursday, you can listen to that below: