Iowa House Democrats put up a long but unsuccessful fight last week over Republican efforts to establish public funding for privately-run charter schools—a years-long attempt that Democrats have been working hard this session to stop.
Democrats spent over five hours into early Thursday morning last week opposing a bill that would make public charter schools more easily established and run by private groups. The following afternoon, they challenged at length a bill that would expand open enrollment for Iowa students, among other provisions.
Both these provisions passed handily through the Senate in early February as a part of a larger school choice bill proposed by Gov. Kim Reynolds. Senate Democrats were optimistic that the aspects of the sweeping legislation including charter schools, a state-funded school voucher program, open enrollment availability in all districts and the removal of voluntary diversity plans, would be disassembled in the House and therefore subject to more debate and considered by their own merit.
While many of those individual bills have stalled in the House, the recent movement of the legislation marks the advancement of major provisions in Reynolds’ agenda that Democrats and school advocates say threaten the state’s public education system after years of underfunding and decreased support.
“I anticipated that some of these bills would end up moving forward, and especially those that the Governor has publicly identified as a priority,” said Democratic Rep. Chris Hall in an interview with Iowa Starting Line. “Her office has been present in the House chamber over the last couple of weeks, where they really haven’t on other big issues. It’s been clear that they are working behind the scenes with the majority.”
Hall, along with Democratic Rep. Molly Donahue, told Starting Line that there were a number of holdouts on the Republican Party’s side up until a few days before the debate. Both Democrats weren’t sure how the bill made it to the floor.
“I don’t think the House Republicans viewed the charter schools bill as a high priority of their own as much as it was a priority of the governor’s that they needed to move forward in order to continue negotiations in the bigger picture of sessions,” Hall said.
Under the charter school bill, a funding group or a non-elected group unaffiliated with local school districts would apply to the State Board of Education to start a charter school. Currently, Iowa’s charter schools are under the supervision of elected school board members. The for-profit nature of these founding groups has concerned Democrats because of a lack of transparency.
“You can spin it any way you want, but I think this bill is not about kids, it’s about money,” Democratic Rep. Sharon Steckman said during Thursday’s debate.
The bill would also move the public school’s taxpayer funding per student over to the charter school when the child transfers.
The bill’s floor manager, Republican Rep. Skyler Wheeler told Steckman that her attempt to characterize GOP pushes for charter schools as a money grab was the “quote of the night.”
“That is a rich quote If I’ve ever heard one,” Wheeler said. He highlighted New York, where Governor Andrew Cuomo advocated for charter schools despite pushback from public school advocates and teachers unions.
“In New York state, specifically in New York City, and I hate to bring the guy’s name up because he’s in a lot of trouble right now— Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat—battled New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, who was going after New York charter schools and defended charter schools because he knows the success.”
All Democratic representatives, along with Republican Reps. Brian Lohse and Gary Mohr opposed the charter school bill.
“There was for sure some arm-twisting happening,” Donahue said. “They’ve been doing that the whole time. I don’t know if it’s disorganized or deceivingly disorganized. Because they’re suspending the rules constantly to get what they want on the schedule.”
For Donahue, this disinvestment in public schools is personal as she is a Cedar Rapids public school teacher herself.
“I feel terrible for educators and children … My district just let 44 people go on Friday. And there’s a whole bunch of people in surplus. They’re saying that because of the funding from the state, that they can’t maintain those positions,” she said. “And none of that should have happened.”
The open enrollment bill was debated and passed on Thursday afternoon in the House, with six Democrats joining Republicans in advancing the legislation, which includes the increased open enrollment eligibility, tax benefits for teachers and students and funds to boost innovation in schools.
Democrats who voted down the bill said there were good aspects of the legislation, but it didn’t do enough to help Iowa’s public schools at a critical time. Open enrollment, they argue, would negatively impact lower-income students if anyone in public schools could transfer out.
“I know that there are a lot of things in here that people like. I just don’t feel it goes far enough, and I don’t think it gets us on the path to making Iowa the best school [system] in the country again,” Democratic Rep. Jennifer Konfrst said during debate on the bill.
On Tuesday, another Senate subcommittee advanced further charter school legislation. It’s scheduled to be considered by the Senate Education Committee on Thursday.
“You’re not going to find any bigger proponent of public schools than the Governor,” said Logan Shine from the governor’s office on the Zoom subcommittee meeting. “I’ve heard a lot of comments about accountability to a local board or to whomever, but ultimately, there’s no greater degree of local control than giving that to the parent … All this is doing is allowing a choice.”
by Isabella Murray
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