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Iowa Senate panel moves private school scholarships, parent bill of rights

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Posted at 10:37 PM, Feb 02, 2022
and last updated 2022-02-02 23:37:12-05

Iowa senators gave initial approval to three major education proposals Wednesday to create a state-funded program to send students to private schools, codify a “Parent Bill of Rights” and set a growth rate for state supplemental aid.

The Senate Education Committee is scheduled to consider two of the bills Thursday morning. Here’s what you need to know:

Education advocates spar on private school scholarship program

Gov. Kim Reynolds released her wide-ranging education proposal on Monday. The bill would require schools to be transparent about curriculum and create a program to give public funds to students who wish to attend a private school.

The Senate took up the legislation on Wednesday. About 60 people attended the meeting at the Capitol, and another 130 attended remotely via Zoom. The hour-long forum ended before anyone on Zoom could make comments.

Molly Severn, lobbyist for Reynolds, said some Iowa families are in school districts that do not “fit their values or needs of their child.”

“Parents matter,” Severn said. “And when it comes to their children’s education, it matters that they have information, options, and the respect that they deserve.”

The most controversial part was a proposal to create the “Students First Scholarship” Program to aid families who want to send their students to private schools. Reynolds pushed a similar proposal last year, but it faltered in the House.

This year’s bill includes a new funding mechanism for students who move from a public school to a private one. The public school would lose all state per-pupil money for that student; 70% would go toward the private school expenses, and 30% would be reallocated to rural districts.

Proponents said the scholarships would allow all Iowa families to choose what school to attend, rather than just those families who can afford it out-of-pocket.

Several religious school attendees spoke in favor of the bill. Charlotte James, a junior at Dowling Catholic High School in Des Moines, said her parents had made sacrifices to send her and her two sisters to private school.

“When I speak to my friends outside of school, they often wish for the opportunities that I have been blessed with,” James said.

She argued the bill would create an opportunity “for those who want to push themselves and succeed,” and the scholarships would make private schools more diverse.

Melissa Peterson, lobbyist for the Iowa State Education Association, noted that Iowa parents already have choices for their children’s education through open enrollment, public charter schools, Montessori schools, and homeschooling options.

“No one is being forced to go to a public school,” Peterson said.

Peterson and other opponents of the proposal said public funds should go to public schools.

“What we ask the state not to do is to create a standing unlimited appropriation to the tune of approximately $75 million to benefit a cap of 10,000 students, when that $75 million could be used across our entire state to benefit 484,000 students,” Peterson said.

Sen. Amy Sinclair and Sen. Ken Rozenboom, both Republicans, signed the bill out of subcommittee. Sen. Claire Celsi did not sign the proposal.

Celsi, who attended Dowling, said lawmakers are charged with funding public education.

“It’s not our job to create a whole parallel system and then fund that too,” Celsi, D-West Des Moines, said. “It’s just gonna get bigger and bigger.”

Sinclair, chair of the Education Committee, ended the meeting with a passionate speech about the importance of allowing all parents to choose private education, regardless of the family’s income.

“There are parents in this room who support this and they support this because they know they have the right to choose what’s best for their child, but they might not have the means to do it,” Sinclair said.

‘Parent Bill of Rights’ would put common policies into law

Reynolds’ proposal and a separate Senate bill both take aim at transparency in schools, requiring districts to report what students are learning and what books are available in the school.

Nearly 60 people attended a meeting Wednesday on the Senate’s “Parent Bill of Rights” proposal, which would declare that parents must have information on a child’s curriculum and teachers, “reasonable access” to the child during the school day, and access to all school records relating to their child.

The bill also tackled issues of obscene content, stating that written parental consent is necessary before a child accesses any “obscene material” at school.

Concerns over obscene content in schools has been a divisive issue in recent months, as some Republican lawmakers have called for criminal charges for teachers who distribute certain controversial books. (Giving obscene material to children is already a crime under Iowa law).

But the Senate’s bill, which does not involve jail time, received widespread support Wednesday. Lobbyists for Iowa school groups registered neutral on the bill, raising only concerns with how parts of the proposal would be implemented. They also asked for an amendment so the bill would apply to private and charter schools.

“Parents’ rights should exist no matter where kids go to school,” said Margaret Buckton on behalf of the Urban Education Network.

Some parent attendees asked if the proposal went far enough. Several speakers mentioned “Gender Queer,” a memoir by Maia Kobabe. The graphic novel includes discussion of gender and sexuality, and includes a drawing of someone using a sex toy.

Some Iowa schools removed the book after parent complaints.

“As a concerned parent, I didn’t want my children or any children to be subjected to sexual pictures and-or any writing that could potentially destroy a minor’s innocence and well-being,” said Anita Fischer of Pella.

Some speakers asked lawmakers to reconsider the definition of “obscene.” Senators on the subcommittee responded that the legal definition of “obscene” is the result of years of court precedent.

All three senators on the subcommittee – Sinclair, Sen. Herman Quirmbach, D-Ames, and Sen. Jeff Taylor, R-Sioux Center – voted to advance the legislation.

Senate proposes $150 million increase for K-12 schools

Sinclair also led a subcommittee meeting to discuss the Senate’s proposed state supplemental aid growth rate of 2.25%. Combined with a $10 increase to the base cost per-pupil and additional transportation funding, Sinclair estimated it would be an increase of about $150 million for K-12 education.

“For the last five years, Republicans have delivered sustainable, reliable funding,” she said.

Advocates for education groups requested a higher growth rate, citing workforce concerns and the national inflation rate.

“In my hometown, you can go down to the battery factory… because they are paying over $20 an hour,” said Dave Daughton, lobbyist for the Rural School Advocates of Iowa. “School districts don’t have the ability to match that.”

Reynolds proposed a 2.5% increase to SSA. The House has not yet released its SSA proposal.

Reynolds reminded reporters Wednesday that Iowa school districts still have federal pandemic aid to spend in the upcoming year through the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund (ESSER).

“As of the end of December, districts were still sitting on… $793 million in ESSER 1 and ESSER 2 funds,” she said at a news conference. “So I don’t think it’s a lack of funding that we’re providing for our K-12 education.”

Daughton and Buckton responded that ESSER is a limited fund, to be used in the next few years for specific purposes. They argued that money couldn’t be used for hiring.

All of the proposals move to the Senate Education Committee, which is scheduled to consider the parent bill of rights and supplemental state aid at 11 a.m. Thursday.

Iowa Capital Dispatch is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Iowa Capital Dispatch maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Kathie Obradovich for questions: info@iowacapitaldispatch.com. Follow Iowa Capital Dispatch on Facebook and Twitter.

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