DES MOINES, Iowa – The Iowa House of Representatives on Tuesday night passed HF 228, a bill that prohibits school districts from using voluntary diversity plans as a reason for denying open enrollment, by a party-line 56 to 32 vote.
The five school districts in Iowa with voluntary diversity plans can, under Iowa law, deny open enrollment requests for families who don’t meet specific criteria. Des Moines, Davenport, and Waterloo base their plans on socio-economic criteria. For instance, in Des Moines, students who do not qualify for free or reduced school lunches can be denied open enrollment. Currently, a family of four whose household income exceeds $49,025 would not be eligible. Postville and West Liberty base their diversity plans upon English as a second language learner status.
State Rep. Dennis Hite, R-New Sharon, the floor manager for the bill, pointed out that Des Moines Public Schools denied 68 open enrollment requests in the 2018-2019 school years, 95 open enrollment requests in the 2019-2000 school year, and this school year they denied 455 open enrollment requests.
“This in a year when the Des Moines public school district was not upholding their responsibility to educate those same children by bringing them back to school. And that’s what this bill is really about. It’s about the families. It’s about the kids. And we have to keep those kids in mind when we’re talking about this bill,” he said.
She later shared the story of a girl who was raped but not allowed to open enroll even though she said her rapist would follow her.
“So in this case, the superintendent of the Des Moines public school system had to make the affirmative decision that student’s, that young girl’s sense of safety, sense of security came after the supposed needs of the Des Moines Public School District. I’m sorry that I just can’t even believe that had happened,” Hite added.
Democrats lined up against the bill.
State Rep. Ako Abdul-Samad, D-Des Moines, said that lawmakers wanted to reverse a law that they enacted.
“The reason why this bill should not be voted on should not pass. Because we’re getting away from something that we did, right? We’re getting away from something that we put in place, so that we could help all of the babies, not just black babies, not just Asian babies, but white babies, all our babies in school. That’s why we implemented this bill. That’s why we implemented the process,” he said.
Abdul-Samad said the voluntary diversity plans are needed to bring students together so that they will have understanding.
State Rep. Jennifer Konfrst, D-Windsor Heights, said that State Rep. Hite didn’t tell the full story about the girl he referenced. Konfrst said she was denied open enrollment because of a state-manded deadline that passed and was allowed to change schools within the district and later allowed to open enroll outside the district, which Konfrst said she declined.
“I am so so proud to represent the Des Moines Public School District. I am so proud that my children graduated from the Des Moines public school district, and I am so sick of hearing stories about what they’ve done wrong. This is the state’s largest school district. They do good work. And I will not let a story like that go on challenged,” she said.
State Rep. Phyllis Thede, D-Davenport, said the Iowa Legislature should celebrate diversity, not work to undermine it in schools.
“This bill will challenge those schools going through tough times. We celebrate cultures. We bring cultures together in our workplace, here in the capital, and our churches. Our school should not be any different. We should celebrate this voluntary plan and enhance what it is doing,” she said.
Thede said that the bill represents a return to a past to which Iowa should not return. “Tonight, we’re going backwards because the majority party wants to see this go backwards,” she said. “This creates haves and have nots.”
State Rep. Bruce Hunter, D-Des Moines, pointed to the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court ruling that desegregated schools.
“In that ruling, the US Supreme Court ruled that separating black and white students was an inherently bad idea. And the concept of separate but equal lost off footing with that ruling. And the years since then, there’s been more and more research done that suggests that integrating social-economic classes together not only helps those at the lower end but helps everybody,” he said.
In 2007, the Supreme Court ruled that using racial criteria was unacceptable, so school districts found other measures to use for their voluntary diversity plans.
Hunter pointed out that the fiscal impact on Des Moines Public Schools due to this bill will be $1.5 million. Hunter was rebuked twice by Speaker Pat Grassley, R-New Hartford, for impugning the motivations of Republicans supporting the bill and was told to get back to “the matter at hand.”
“The matter at hand is that you’re screwing our kids. And you might not want to talk about it. You might want to point of order anytime somebody says something that doesn’t go with, might hurt your feelings a little bit. But House File 228 will hurt our kids. It will hurt the educational programs in those five districts that you’re talking about. It will cause financial and educational damage to the kids,” he concluded.
State Rep. Mary Mascher, D-Iowa City, said the voluntary diversity plans are a way to address the achievement gap schools face. She said they have the plans because they have many families in poverty and English language learners.
She said what the legislature is considering “flies in the face of” what the Iowa Department of Education recommended.
“So I’m telling you tonight that our five districts that have implemented these plans did so for their kids, they did so that they so that they could see a change in those achievement results. Because we have not made the trends and accomplishments that we need to with those kids. And it’s mostly based on poverty. So it’s poverty in rural Iowa. It’s poverty in our inner cities. And it’s poverty throughout the state where kids are having a hard time in families where their basic needs are not being met,” Mascher said.
State Rep. Cindy Winckler, D-Davenport, pointed to research.
“The research is clear that maintaining a balance in a classroom of students of all socio-economic statuses has a positive impact on a student’s achievement. Elimination of the ability to review and accept or deny an open enrollment request will negatively impact the ability of these districts to minimize a concentration of low income or English language learner students,” she said.
State Rep. Ross Wilburn, D-Ames, asked State Rep. Hite whether he knew the rest of the story about the young woman he referenced.
“I don’t have the kid’s name. Okay. I have no idea how to know what happened afterward because that’s private. I don’t have that information,” Hite answered.
State Rep. Sue Cahill, D-Marshalltown, implied that parents sometimes request open enrollment because they want to take their children out of diverse settings.
“We (Marshalltown) have a number of students who open enroll out. And although they say it might be families say it’s for smaller class sizes or for a more rural experience like they had. There’s a number of reasons why they open enroll, and it’s usually pretty evident,” she said.
“I believe that not everyone has the best intentions if they want an open enrollment, they’re thinking of their child. But again, we need to think of all kids if we want it better for one child, we have to make it better for all kids,” Cahill added.
In his closing comments, Hite addressed the story of the girl who was raped and denied open enrollment.
“I never made a mention of a student’s name because I don’t have one. So I’m not even sure you and I are talking about the same incident. Lord, I hope there’s only one of them. But I don’t even know if we’re talking about the same incident,” he said.
“I have names blacked out. That’s all that is given to me, and, quite frankly, I shouldn’t have the kids’ names. I don’t know how we know what happened after but let’s assume that’s what happened. And let’s assume that the student was late in applying. There’s (sic) exceptions to that rule. One of those exceptions is pervasive harassment. Surely, having the person who sexually assaulted you follow you around school qualifies as pervasive harassment. And so if that’s the case, then what reason could be given to deny that request?” Hite asked.
He said this bill is about kids and then shared other stories.
“The reason why I’m talking about them is because that’s the only documents I have. I think that these were not even intended to be public. But somehow, they became that way. I don’t have them from other school districts. I can’t pretend to know what has or what has not occurred in those. What I have is in front of me. We have a student who was subject to harassment and wanted out, we have a student who was threatened and wanted out, we have a child who was assaulted, and charges were filed against the perpetrator and wanted out. We have another child who was being assaulted. And the district said, and this is in the notes, that kids stabbing each other with a pencil and pulling each other’s hair were typical for middle school. My wife’s a middle school teacher and has been for 15 plus years. I don’t think that’s typical in her day,” Hite argued.
“There was a child who was assaulted at school, and, in the notes, we have that there was a safety plan, and that would have been sufficient. We have a child who was bullied. We have another child who was assaulted and missed several days of school. We have another student who was bullied. Another student who said they were jumped twice. Another student whose therapist was asking that the child be allowed to leave a student who received the threat of being beat up in the bathroom. A child who says he was bullied through the fourth and fifth grades., (and) a student who was cutting themselves due to the anxiety of being in a large school,” he continued.
“I don’t have the veracity of these stories. And I would tend to believe that most of them are true. I would tend to believe that all of them are true. But you see, it doesn’t matter. What matters is students and parents have made the decision that they want out of these districts, that (it is) not the best place for their student. Whether it’s these reasons or other reasons, this bill gets rid of the mechanism which schools used to deny those requests,” Hite said. “That’s what this bill is for. It’s for the students. It’s for the kids. It’s for the parents.”