This was the third week of the legislative session, and while we remained busy with subcommittee and committee meetings, we also had some of the first floor debate of the year. Education has been an important topic for nearly every legislator because of the difficulties this last year has imposed. This week, the Senate took several steps to improving education in our state. This newsletter will focus on some of those K-12 education matters before us.
Senate File 160 requires schools to offer full-time, in-person instruction options for parents who select it for their students. We know that a few students perform quite well with on-line and hybrid teaching arrangements, while many others struggle when not in the classroom with direct, in-person teaching. Most of our Iowa schools have done a great job of working through the challenges of the pandemic, but a few have simply refused to offer an in-person option for families. I’ve received many emails from parents pleading with us to require in-person teaching. SF160 does that.
Governor Reynolds released SF 159 last week in an effort to improve public education, increase student achievement, and prepare Iowa students to compete in the global economy. Giving students and parents a choice in education is one of the main goals of this legislation. Before I go further, I have to say that more disinformation has been distributed about this bill than perhaps any other during my nine years in the Senate. It’s difficult to have meaningful discussion about policy when we have to deal with information that is extremely distorted, and sometimes simply false.
Having said that, Iowa schools have a strong history of success. But some schools are failing to provide an adequate educational experience. One measure of a failing school is when 1 out of 3 students does not graduate. SF159 is narrowly tailored to provide children in failing schools a scholarship to attend a non-public school or a charter school. Another component of the bill gives students the ability to open enroll to another school district. While open enrollment is very common throughout much of Iowa, some school districts block open enrollment because of diversity requirements, leaving students trapped and parents with no other choices.
The vast majority of Iowa schools are performing well above the criteria established to define a failing school. However, thirty-four schools in nineteen school districts are determined to be failing by standards established by either the state or federal government. This bill is targeted to impact those schools while not affecting our public schools that are doing a great job. The governor has asked for $3 million for this effort.
The common refrain from opponents of even a very modest school choice proposal such as this is that money will be taken away from public schools. Over the last four years the Iowa Senate has allocated over $300 million in new funding for K-12 schools, plus over $20 million every year to help with transportation costs for our rural schools. And every promise made over the last four years has been kept because the amount of money promised has been reasonable and sustainable. This year, the Iowa Senate will again increase the amount of funding to K-12 schools to around $3.5 billion, and every Iowa parent can be confident in knowing the funding promised to their schools will be delivered just as it has been, even during a global pandemic.
A number of pieces of this bill will change as the legislative process moves forward, and I welcome input from my constituents on different aspects of the bill. However, I do believe it is wrong to tell parents of students in a failing school that they must continue to endure an educational system that isn’t helping their student, refuses to hold in-person classes, and prohibits them from an using an alternative public education option.
Obviously, many other pieces of legislation are in process now, and I hope to report on them in the weeks ahead.