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Iowa House passes bill to expand charter schools after lengthy debate

Iowa House passes bill to expand charter schools after lengthy debate

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Iowa House passes bill to expand charter schools after lengthy debate

Iowa State Capitol building July 31, 2020, in Des Moines 

DES MOINES — Citing former President Barack Obama, Iowa House Republicans urged approval of legislation to allow for an expansion of charter schools as an alternative to traditional public schools, which they said will foster innovation and experimentation in classroom learning.

Rep. Skyler Wheeler, R-Orange City, opened floor debate on House File 813 Wednesday evening by quoting the former president’s 2012 proclamation that charter schools “have brought new ideas to the work of educating our sons and daughters ... serve as incubators of innovation in neighborhoods across our country ... giving educators the freedom to cultivate new teaching models and develop creative methods to meet students’ needs.”

“I think that’s a great way to summarize what we’re going to debate tonight,” Wheeler said.

However, after an amendment he offered was adopted, Democrats pointed out that under House rules the bill had to go to the Appropriations Committee because it referred to the appropriation of an amount necessary to cover the costs of the charter schools. Democrats also said that, as written, the amendment would obligate the state to cover the costs of out-of-state students enrolled in Iowa charter schools.

After a lengthy delay, the House suspended its rule that prohibits voting after midnight and deferred on the bill at about 11 p.m. to allow the committee to meet to consider the bill.

The portion of the bill affecting funding was finalized and filed as an amendment earlier in the day, said Rep. Chris Hall of Sioux City, the ranking Democrat on the Appropriations Committee

“One of the most important points in this debate is how much money will be siphoned away from existing schools,” he said. “There’s no fiscal note that incorporates the updates and tells people the cost.”

The funds spent to cover charter schools would not be an additional cost to taxpayers, Rep. John Wills, R-Spirit Lake, told the Appropriations Committee. The funds would be the same as the state spends on students who are open enrolled out of their home district now. The committee approved the bill on a party-line vote.

Likewise, the final outcome was never in doubt as amendments were approved on party lines votes. Republicans hold a 59-41 majority. HF 813 was approved 55-40 early Thursday morning with one Republican. Rep. Gary Mohr of Bettendorf, joining Democrats in voting “no.” Council Bluffs area representatives Brent Siegrist and Jon Jacobsen, both Republicans, voted for the bill. Rep. Charlie McConkey, D-Council Bluffs, voted against it.

Wheeler and majority Republicans want to make it possible for more charter schools to form to “improve student learning, increase learning opportunities in STEM and work-based learning, to establish models of success for schools and to give more flexibility for meeting needs of diverse student populations as well as for closing gaps in student achievement,” Wheeler said.

He presented charter schools as an option for parents of students “who don’t fit with the traditional public school ... with online learning ... with home schools or magnet schools or private schools. It’s another option.”

However, as debate started on the bill and 30 amendments, Democrats warned that charter schools could siphon students and funding from local K-12 schools. They also sought to bar what they called “private” groups from seeking charters and to increase public input and oversight of charter schools.

Under the bill, two groups could seek approval of charter schools — school boards and “founding groups,” which could be individuals, groups or education service providers.

Charter school development should be in coordination with the local school board, not in competition with them, said Rep. Ras Smith, D-Waterloo. He has “stranger danger about out-of-state groups that want to come in to make a profit at expense of Iowa public schools.”

“We have an amazing public school system in this state, and we have amazing teachers. We ought to support them,” said Rep. Mary Mascher, D-Iowa City, a retired teacher. Charter schools would be using taxpayer dollars, so they should be subject to oversight similar to public schools, she said.

Wheeler didn’t dispute that Iowa’s local schools are great, but in some cases, they may not meet the needs of all students, he said.

He did reject the arguments that charter schools would be detrimental to local public school districts.

The bill, he said, would require charter schools be nonprofits. They could not charge tuition. They would be prohibited from cherry-picking students based on athletic prowess. They would be required to offer special education services. Their charters could be revoked if they did not meet the terms of the charter, he said.

When Iowa launched its charter school pilot program more than a decade ago, it had 10 applications, said Rep. Cindy Winckler, D-Davenport.

“Every one of them said they applied because they got more money,” she said. “They could do innovative things because they got more money.”

Iowa has two charter schools that have operated since the 2005-06 school year — in Storm Lake and Maynard.

When the Appropriations Committee met, Democrats asked for a public hearing on HF 813. Typically, hearings are requested before floor debate starts.

“It wasn’t clear whether the public hearing would be honored,” Hall said, “but we were told they wanted this bill done tonight regardless.”

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