Randy Richardson reviews the education bills Iowa lawmakers passed during the 2021 session. -promoted by Laura Belin
According to the Republican Party of Iowa's website, Republicans believe “individuals, not the government, make the best decisions; all people are entitled to equal rights; and decisions are best made close to home."
While the party may espouse those beliefs, their actions on public education hardly exemplify those statements.
When discussing legislative action around public education, many people immediately jump to the issue of school funding. It’s no secret that inadequate school funding has long been an issue in our state. Between 2011 and 2020, Supplemental State Aid to schools increased by an average of 1.76 percent annually, according to data from the Legislative Services Agency. That barely kept up with the annual rate of inflation during those years and didn't keep pace with rising costs for school districts.
During the 2021 session, Republicans approved an increase of 2.4 percent for the coming academic year. While that seemed like an improvement, it’s important to add some perspective. That 2.4 percent increase only requires the state to spend roughly an extra $25 million. That’s because the COVID-19 pandemic caused school enrollment to decline during the 2020-21 school year.
Most school leaders believe it would take an increase of at least 4 percent to meet the existing needs of schools. The state could certainly afford to spend more, since it has a combined budget surplus and rainy day funds that total nearly $1 billion.
Compared to some of the other draconian bills that were passed this year, school funding looks positively rosy.
Governor Kim Reynolds and GOP legislators spent a great deal of time complaining about the restrictions imposed under the state’s open enrollment law. They were particularly angered that five school districts (Des Moines, Waterloo, Davenport, Postville, and West Liberty) used Voluntary Diversity Plans as a reason to deny open enrollment. In response, House File 228 was introduced, passed and signed into law. It outlawed the use of voluntary diversity plans as a reason for a district to refuse an open enrollment request.
The new law could result in the Des Moines Public Schools losing as many as 400 students who would normally have been denied open enrollment because of their diversity plans. It will also mean the loss of the state aid ($7,200 per student or $2.88 million) associated with those students. This law took effect immediately, after school districts had adopted their budgets for next year based on expected enrollment numbers.
Republican legislators also decided that Iowa’s existing charter school law wasn’t creating enough options for students, so they enacted House File 813. Under the new law, an outside group (called a founding group) can bypass the local school board and apply directly to the State Board of Education to receive approval to start a charter school.
Those schools will be allowed to operate outside of the normal educational requirements of the state’s public schools. Republican lawmakers also voted down many Democratic amendments that would have bound charter schools to other standards, such as civil rights protections and mandatory reporting of abuse.
Funding for charter schools will be handled through a two-step process: local public schools will initially receive the funds, then transfer those dollars to the charters where their students are attending. The fiscal note attached to the bill observed, "There is a potential for double counting of students for State funding" in a charter school's initial year of operation.
Reynolds signed the charter school bill at the headquarters of the Starts Right Here Movement in Des Moines. That program, started by local rapper Will Keeps, specializes in helping disadvantaged and oppressed youth overcome their challenges and thrive. It operates in a building that contains classrooms, a weight room, a recording studio, and video games. It currently enrolls about 20 students under contract with the Des Moines Public Schools. Keeps has indicated that he intends to apply for charter school status. It’s not just small operators who may be applying for this status.
One other Des Moines area program has also indicated that it plans to apply. The Jordahl Academy was founded by Dr. Cynthia Knight, a longtime educator. The online high school program currently partners with a number of area public schools to provide a program of study for 247 primarily at-risk students. The Academy employs teachers who are fully licensed in Iowa.
It’s also likely that the new charter school bill will attract some of the national charter school chains to Iowa. Nonprofit and for profit groups such as the KIPP Academy, Charter Schools USA and Academica may have an interest in locating in metropolitan areas.
New limits on curriculum, training
Then we have House File 802, which the House and Senate approved but the governor has not yet signed. The bill was largely directed at Iowa's state universities. However, it also requires the superintendent of each school district to ensure that any curriculum or mandatory staff/student training provided by an employee of the school district does not teach, advocate, encourage, promote, or act upon specific stereotyping and scapegoating toward others on the basis of demographic group membership or identity.
It does, however, allow district employees to respond to questions on the topics that are proposed by participants.
A wide-ranging policy bill
Republicans were just getting warmed up. Next up was House File 847. This was the bill Reynolds signed after midnight, shortly after lawmakers adjourned for the year, to immediately prohibit school districts from requiring that staff, students, or members of the public wear face coverings.
While the end to mask mandates grabbed most of the media attention, this wide-ranging bill covered many other topics, such as:
- The creation of a Flexible Student and School Support Program that would allow local school boards to apply to the Director of the Department of Education for approval to implement evidence based practices in innovative ways (who knows what that even means). This kind of thing takes money so it also gives the school districts the authority to use unexpended funds from the Teacher Salary Supplement and Teacher Leadership programs (currently about $4.7 million).
- Increasing the Tuition and Textbook Tax Credit to 25 percent of the first $2,000 (was $1,000) for the tuition and textbooks of each dependent. The bill also increases the deduction educators can take for certain expenses allowed under the IRS Code to $500 (up from the current $250) Increasing the deduction is expected to reduce state revenue by $410,000 while changes to the Tuition and Textbook Tax Credit reduce revenue by $11.1 million.
- Expanding the definition of what constitutes a “good cause” to qualify for open enrollment and making it easier for athletes who open enroll to become eligible.
- Requiring all schools to administer the Pledge of Allegiance each day for grades 1 through 12
- Increasing the School Tuition Organization (STO) tax credit from 65 percent to 75 percent and increasing the total cap on STO contributions from $15 million to $20 million. These changes will decrease state revenue by $3.4 million in the fiscal year that begins on July 1.
- Requiring charter school governance to fall under the open records law.
More public comments at school board meetings
A number of groups have complained online about the lack of opportunity to speak at school board meetings. Republicans addressed their concerns in an amendment to the education appropriations bill, House File 868. The amendment would require school boards to place an item on the agenda if enough eligible voters in a school district (at least 10 percent of the number of people who voted in the last school board election or 500 people, whichever is lower) sign a petition.
If the petition addresses a curriculum issue, the school board would have the option to place the curriculum in question on hold until they can discuss it at the next meeting.
Unfortunately House File 868 didn’t stop there. Instead, it included new language that
- Requires the Iowa Department of Education to develop and post information on its website that provides guidance for parents and community members who have concerns about school districts or governing boards.
- Changes the accreditation process for school districts and private schools to create a burdensome site visitation process by Department of Education employees and third-party consultants. The accreditation process could lead to closure of some schools and children being sent to neighboring school districts.
- Establishes that a school administrator will be charged for the administrative costs of processing complaints and conducting hearings that result in a sanction against the administrator for violation of the code of professional conduct and ethics. (This piece was obviously aimed at Des Moines superintendent Tom Ahart, who is facing complaints over his district providing fully online instruction for the first two weeks of the 2020/21 school year.)
At this writing, the governor has not signed House File 868. Because it is an appropriations bill, she has item veto power, so she could veto some parts of the bill while leaving the rest intact. (For legislation not related to spending, the governor must sign or reject the entire bill.)
Virtually every bill discussed above takes away the ability of local school districts to make decisions about how best to provide an educational program for their children. Instead we get Republican dictates on what teachers can say, how schools can operate, and big government oversight of what they do.
For a party that campaigned as big supporters of public education, small government, and local control, it appears that it’s not important to practice what you preach.