A bill prohibiting school districts from starting the academic year before August 23 is on its way to Governor Terry Branstad, who has indicated that he can accept the compromise. UPDATE: The governor signed the bill on April 10.
The school start date issue has taken up a lot of oxygen at the statehouse this legislative session, despite a lack of evidence that the timing of the academic year affects Iowa's tourism sector in any meaningful way. Follow me after the jump for details on Senate File 227's journey through the legislature, including how Iowa House and Senate members voted on different versions of the bill.
The governor's determination to use state power to supersede decisions reached independently by more than 300 school boards and superintendents is yet another example of the Branstad administration's disregard for local control in many policy areas. For my money, that's one of the most under-reported Iowa politics stories of the last five years.
Iowa Senate Education Committee Chair Herman Quirmbach introduced legislation later renamed Senate File 227 as a way to protect local education authorities' ability to set their own academic calendars. The bill eliminated existing Iowa Code language stating that the academic year can't begin before the week preceding September 1, unless school districts receive a waiver from the Iowa Department of Education. Instead, the bill would allow "the board of directors of a school district and the authorities in charge of an accredited nonpublic school shall determine the school start date for the school calendar based on the best educational interests of the students."
This bill cleared the Senate Education Committee on a bipartisan 12 to 3 vote. Democratic Senators Quirmbach, Brian Schoenjahn, Tod Bowman, Bob Dvorsky, Rita Hart, Rob Hogg, Kevin Kinney, Liz Mathis, Mary Jo Wilhelm, and Republicans Tim Kraayenbrink and Brad Zaun supported the bill. GOP Senators Jerry Behn, David Johnson, and Jason Schultz cast no votes in committee.
On March 10, the Iowa Senate approved Senate File 227 on a bipartisan 32 to 17 vote (roll call).
Democratic senators who voted yes (20):
Mary Jo Wilhelm
Republican senators who voted yes (12):
Democratic senators who voted no (6):
Republican senators who voted no (11):
Republican Randy Feenstra was absent for this vote.
Notably, supporters would need 34 votes in the Senate to over-ride the governor's veto.
When the Iowa House considered Senate File 227, lawmakers changed the text to take the start date decision away from local school districts. GOP State Representative Greg Forristall characterized the new language as the best deal he could get:
"Since the first day of the session we have been working on the issue of the school start date," Representative Greg Forristall, a Republican from Macadonia, said. "We've had discussions over the last couple of months with the senate, with members of the various house, with the governor's office and I believe we have finally reached an acceptable compromise." [...]
Forristall said setting "on or after August 23″ as the new rule for starting school is something the governor will accept.
"Sometimes you have to take what you can get," Forristall said. "...This is one of those cases."
A few schools that operate on a year-round calendar will be exempt from the August 23 starting date.
Incidentally, Forristall was a vocal critic of efforts during the 2012 legislative session to stop school districts from beginning the academic year before September 1:
"I'm chair of the House Education Committee and we've fought this for six years now and no self-respecting chair of education is going to put commerce in front of the education needs of children," Forristall says. "I think this bill is an embarrassment."
Back to this year. The amended Senate File 227 passed the Iowa House on March 24 by 71 votes to 29 (roll call).
Republican state representatives who voted yes (55):
Mary Ann Hanusa
Guy Vander Linden
Democratic state representatives who voted yes (16):
Ruth Ann Gaines
Republican state representatives who voted no (2):
Democratic state representatives who voted no (27):
Senate File 227 went back to the upper chamber, where Quirmbach urged colleagues on March 25 to support "local control." Had the Senate rejected the House-approved version of the bill, the legislation would have gone to a conference committee to resolve differences. Instead, senators passed the version including the "on or after August 23" wording by 28 votes to 22 (roll call). Only one Democrat changed his position on the local control principle, but the GOP caucus swung overwhelmingly toward the House language, presumably as a way to avoid a confrontation with Governor Branstad.
Democratic senators who voted yes (7):
Republican senators who voted yes (21):
Democratic senators who voted no (19):
Mary Jo Wilhelm
Republican senators who voted no (3):
Normally a bill goes to the governor after being approved by both chambers, but Senate Majority Leader Gronstal had a surprise waiting.
That prompted Senate Democratic Leader Mike Gronstal to use a parliamentary maneuver which has tabled the bill. He's not saying when it may be brought back up for a vote.
"I'm in no rush," Gronstal said.
By an overwhelming vote on Tuesday [March 24], the House voted to set "on or after August 23″ as the school start date. At the least, Gronstal said the House-backed plan should be adjusted, since as currently written it would prevent any Iowa high school from moving to a year-round calendar.
"We think that's pretty crazy," Gronstal told reporters.
At his regular weekly press conference yesterday, Branstad was asked about the stalemate.
"We don't have any year-round high schools in Iowa, so there's not something that we need to address," Branstad says. [...]
"I can live with the present law or this compromise is something that I would find also acceptable," Branstad says.
The Democratic leader in the Iowa Senate has placed a hold on the compromise date of no earlier than August 23. Senate Democratic Leader Mike Gronstal has said since the bill grants a waiver to year-round elementary schools, it should include waviers for year-round high schools, in case districts want to move in that direction in the future. Branstad rejects that argument.
"I see no reason to address something that's a non-issue when there are no year-round high schools," Branstad says. "I can't see what his problem could be."
Today, Gronstal changed course.
"While Governor Branstad created this problem last year, we think it's been a significant distraction inside the legislature," Gronstal said. "We're going to focus now trying to get adequate funding for K-12 education." [...]
Gronstal put a hold on the bill last week, but released it this morning shortly after the senate began its work day. "I'm going to let this bill go," Gronstal told reporters. "I think there are a [lot] of things in it that are wrong, but that's sometimes how it goes around here."
No kidding. Lawmakers spent too much time debating this issue while school boards and administrators scramble to put together budgets for the coming academic year, not yet knowing how much state funding will be available.
Once upon a time, Iowa Republicans prided themselves on being the party of local control. Senate File 227 is another reminder that those days are over. State law will now dictate to local education leaders when they are allowed to start the school year, and the Department of Education will no longer routinely hand out waivers to districts seeking to start earlier.