DES MOINES, Iowa – The Iowa Senate on Tuesday afternoon 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 29 to 17 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.
The Iowa Senate vote comes two months after the Iowa House passed the bill 56 to 32. The Senators passed an amendment to the bill that makes the bill go into effect immediately when signed into law. It also waives the March 1 deadline for families in the five school districts that use diversity plans to apply for open enrollment for the next school year.
State Senator Herman Quirmbach, D-Ames, spoke in opposition to the bill.
“We’ve had a lot of discussion this year about school choice. In fact, when you look at the numbers, there is actually a remarkably large amount of school choice. Open enrollment, about 30,000 students a year open enroll to a different district. That’s about 6 percent of the school-age population. About six-and-a-half percent attend parochial or private school, about 34,000 students a year. We don’t have a good figure on the number of homeschoolers this year because we no longer keep track of that, but a reasonable estimate would be about 2 percent. So yeah, add that all up; we have between 14 and 15 percent of our school-age children choosing not to attend their local public school. That’s one kid out of seven, one kid out of seven, chooses not to go to their local public school,” he argued.
“Now, the true volume of school choice in this state is vastly greater than that because a lot of people choose to send their kids to the public school in their neighborhood in their community,” Quirmbach added.
He pointed out that the Des Moines Public School District, even with a diversity plan, open enrolls around 1500 students out of the district every year. Between 1400 to 1600 students open enroll to another school within the district every year. Quirmbach noted that Davenport also open enrolls 500 to 600 students out of the district every year and 600 to 700 open enrolls to a different school within the district. With Waterloo, he said they average open enroll about 300 to 400 every year.
“So when you actually look at the data, when you’re actually looking at the numbers, what you see is even within these districts, there’s a tremendous amount of choice being exercised. And again, that’s not counting the choice of the people who like their local public school and send their kids right there in their own neighborhood,” he said.
Quirmbach said there wasn’t justification for voting in favor of the bill.
State Senator Chris Cournoyer, R-LeClaire, a former school board member, spoke in favor of the bill. She said there are many reasons why families opt to keep their students in their local school district, but also good reasons why they would want to open enroll them out.
Discussing schools in the Quad City area where she lives, she said, “There are a lot of opportunities afforded to (Davenport) students. So parents want to send their kids to their neighborhood schools. They want to be able to let their kids walk down the street and go to the neighborhood school where they pay their property taxes. Why wouldn’t they? Why wouldn’t anybody want that? But they also have the choice if maybe they want to go to North Scott to take part in the ag program that they should be able to do that, too. So they might want to go to Bettendorf to experience the block schedule that they have there. I mean, there’s a lot of reasons why a student would want to go to another school district to fit the needs that they have to get the quality education that they deserve so that they are prepared for post-secondary success,” she said.
State Senator Amy Sinclair, R-Allerton, the bill’s manager, in her closing remarks, said that Quirmbach left a key figure out his data – the 357 students who were denied open enrollment last school year.
“Yes, they certainly allowed open enrollment for the vast majority of the students who requested it. But these 350 students have a purpose for their education. They have goals and desires that may or may not align with their home district,” she said.
She pointed out Des Moines Public Schools made up a bulk of the denials.
“They actually managed to not only deny open enrollment requests to families, but they also managed to divulge their personally identifying information and circumstances on their school’s website,” Sinclair said.
“I would just say that the worst example by far is from a student who requested open enrollment because she was raped by another student on campus. And she no longer feels safe at that district. The documents that I’m going to read from shortly detail requests for open enrollment based on harassment and bullying problems and adjustment to a larger district. Families requested that they want to open enrollment to deal with a child’s health problems or cite family concerns such as changing jobs or other circumstances such as child care needs. And we all know that’s an issue here in the state. And in each request, the district denied these open enrollments,” she added.
Sinclair countering Quirmbach, said there wasn’t justification to vote against the bill.
The amended bill will return to the Iowa House for their consideration.