DES MOINES, Iowa – The Iowa Senate Education Committee approved HF 813, a bill that expands Iowa’s charter school law, by an 8 to 5 party-line vote last Thursday. The bill passed in the Iowa House on March 24 by a 55 to 40 vote and is now eligible for debate in the Iowa Senate.
In January, the Iowa Senate had passed similar language when they passed Gov. Kim Reynolds’ Students First Act, a larger education bill that included Education Savings Accounts. The Iowa House divided up Reynolds’ proposed bill into several pieces of legislation that did not include Education Savings Accounts.
State Senator Herman Quirmbach, D-Ames, said the state’s charter school option has been available since 2002 and has not taken off.
“We started with a limit of 10, moved the limit up to 20, then removed the limit. Facts on the ground is (sic) that none of those limits were ever binding constraints. We got up to seven. We’re now back down to two; five of the seven have closed,” he said.
Iowa’s remaining charter schools are high schools, one in Storm Lake and the other in Maynard.
“This does not seem to me to be a very effective means of addressing the various needs that have been identified. And let’s be clear, the needs that have been identified – whether it’s learning disabilities or behavioral issues or dropout prevention, or a variety of other things – those are all real needs. But we have programs in our public schools already that address those needs. And a charter school just does not seem to be, has not proven historically to be a very effective way of addressing that,” Quirmbach added.
He was concerned about the bill allowing founding groups to go through the Iowa State Board of Education rather than locally elected school boards.
“That I think is a dangerous precedent to remove our public education funds from the oversight of the people who pay those dollars in their elected representatives,” Quirmbach said. “If this does take off, it will be bleeding schools of their students as well as their dollars.”
He also noted that he was concerned about what the charter school bill could do to Iowa’s rural schools.
State Senator Amy Sinclair, R-Allerton, the bill’s manager, said Quirmbach’s reference to the low number of charter schools in the state is evidence for why the bill is needed.
“The fact that our charter laws are so restrictive such that even public schools can’t abide by all the regulations that are affixed to that. I think it does indeed provide the real proof and the real reason why we need to give opportunities to both our school boards and existing public schools the opportunity to innovate and advance to meet the needs of those populations that the senator identified as needing more innovation and a maybe different than the standard historical approach to education. The very fact that even our existing public schools can’t tolerate the rules that come along with it is exactly why we need this bill,” she said.
Sinclair called Quirmbach’s comments about rural schools fearmongering.
“No charters going to open up in a place where there isn’t a density of population of students. And unfortunately, that leaves the kids in my district in a place of not having the opportunity for the innovation is as robust a form as maybe some more densely populated areas,” she argued.
“I know many of you have heard me talk about some visits that I’ve taken to charter schools in other states where the laws are, are less restrictive, and allow for more innovation. And where I’ve seen children succeed in ways that that by and large kids in Iowa can’t because our charter system and, frankly, our public school rules, limit the innovation and the ability for students to thrive in some of those ways that they can’t in a traditional system,” she added.
Iowa’s current law only allows schools to obtain charters through the approval and oversight of local school districts. Charter schools now can only operate within the boundaries of the school district.
The existing charter schools will continue to operate under the current code, but no new charter school can start under that chapter if the bill becomes law. HF 813 creates a new code chapter with two charter school models – the school board – state board model and the founding group – state board model.
The state board of education can approve charter school requests from founding groups created by local school districts who would operate a charter school within and as part of a school district as a new attendance center, part of an existing attendance center, or by converting an existing attendance center.
HF 813 also allows the state board of education to approve charter schools established by independent founding groups that create a charter school within the state’s boundaries that operates as a new attendance center independently from a public school district. The charter school would be overseen by a governing board, either elected or selected, based on the charter school’s contract with the state.
The governing board would be required to have a majority of members from the charter school’s geographical area. Those members not from the geographical area must be residents of Iowa. Governing board meetings would fall under the open meetings law, and the budget would be required to be made public.
The bill requires the Iowa Department of Education to monitor charter schools’ progress and establishes application and approval criteria for the state board of education to implement. Charter school contracts can be granted for five-year terms.
What makes charter schools unique is that they are exempt from all state statutes and rules and any local rule, regulation, or policy applicable to non-charter schools except for health and safety regulations and laws, nondiscrimination laws, they must be non-sectarian and non-religious, tuition-free, provide special education services, audit requirements, and transportation requirements.
An Iowa Senate subcommittee hearing was held for the bill on March 25. You can listen to the subcommittee hearing below.