Iowa Senate Republicans on Wednesday night finally passed a highly controversial bill that establishes public funding for privately-run charter schools.
After voting down 13 Democratic-introduced amendments, each killed along party lines, the majority party advanced one of Gov. Kim Reynolds’ school choice priorities, which allows a funding group or a non-elected group unaffiliated with local school districts apply to the State Board of Education to start a charter school. Currently, Iowa’s two charter schools are under the supervision of elected school board members.
After passing the Iowa House in March, the bill now moves to Reynolds’ desk for her signature.
“All of the facts about this bill have been shared ad nauseam, most of us have already made up our minds, or Gov. Reynolds has already convinced you that the private sector soaking up our precious public dollars is a good thing,” West Des Moines Sen. Claire Celsi said on the Senate floor.
“For me, today is more about the common Iowa sense that we all have the opportunity to apply in this situation. Does it benefit the majority of Iowans? No. Does it solve a pressing need? No. Does this solution have a good track record in other places? Decidedly not.”
Each failed amendment brought to the floor on Wednesday addressed longstanding Democratic concerns with the legislation. The measures included barring conflict of interests for the schools’ governing boards and funding groups, requiring the charter schools follow civil rights protections required of public schools and that school staff be mandatory reporters for sexual and physical abuse, among others.
“Today’s a really sad day for Iowa. We’re trashing our once sterling reputation for excellence in public education and allowing unbridled capitalism to take over—warning signs be damned,” Celsi said.
Senate Minority Leader Zach Wahls filed two amendments—one would require that charter school founders and their governing boards be mostly Iowa residents. He also put forth the provision that would curb conflicts of interest within these founding groups and governing boards.
Celsi also filed two amendments. The Democrat proposed that charter schools would be required to demonstrate effectiveness and that the public be allowed input into the charter schools’ finances because they’re backed by taxpayer money.
Linn County Sen. Liz Mathis filed three amendments that required all charter school staff be mandatory reporters for sexual and physical abuse, that they must have a school nurse and that the students must be subject to the immunization requirements of their respective grade levels.
Ames Sen. Herman Quirmbach filed four amendments. One that would ensure charter schools follow civil rights protections required of public schools and others that require teachers and administrators have correct licensure and training, along with a right to collective bargain. Quirmbach also put forth an amendment that would require a charter school have a qualified guidance counselor.
The Senate on Wednesday also passed another of Reynolds’ controversial school choice bills—one that expands open enrollment for Iowa students and a few GOP-led amendments that would make charter schools’ boards liable to open records laws and require some licensure for administrators. This legislation is headed back to the House before the Governor will see it.
The advancement of these education bills comes days after hundreds of Des Moines Public School students and parents took to the Capitol steps on Monday to challenge the school choice legislation.
Warren County Sen. Julian Garrett said on the floor that the Des Moines Public Schools students protesting these bills weren’t an accurate depiction of all the opinion of all the state’s students.
The refusal to address these students’ concerns is negating the challenges of young people, Iowa City Democratic Sen. Joe Bolkcom said.
“The students, they don’t like your agenda,” Bolkcom said. “It’s sad that the typical response is to silence them, disregard them, cancel them when they disagree with what’s going on in this building.”
by Isabella Murray
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