Last week 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. Last week, the Senate took several steps to improving education in our state.
One of these bills was SF 160, requiring schools to offer a full-time, in-person instruction option for parents who select it for their students. We are dedicated to ensuring Iowa students continue growing and developing the skills they need to succeed not just in school, but beyond. We know most students suffer when they’re not in the classroom, and this bill is necessary to ensure that being in the classroom, where they learn best, is an option for them. While this bill affected few students in our area, across the state, it had become a big concern as students were falling behind and failing classes for lack of focused instruction.
We also discussed Senate File 130. This would allow a member of the board of directors of a school district to receive compensation in excess of $6,000 for employment as a substitute teacher, a food service worker, or a school bus driver for the school corporation in the 2020-2021 fiscal year. During the pandemic, when many districts have been faced with many challenges, school board members are stepping in to help amid staff shortages. However, current law prohibits school board members from receiving compensation directly from the school board unless the compensation is for part-time or temporary employment and does not exceed $6,000 in a fiscal year. This bill provides flexibility for the districts whose school board members are trying to help out in those areas.
The Senate also debated Senate File 129 to make several changes to the Iowa Primary Care Loan Repayment Program. These changes include, allowing OB/GYNs to participate in the program, ensuring flexibility for part-time physician practice, allowing for practice site flexibility to expand psychiatric access and establishing true geographic standards. This bill has a number of benefits for our state.
Allowing OB/GYNs to participate will help address Iowa’s growing rural maternal health access problem, we can increase the number of physicians participating in the program and allow more rural communities to have at least some level of medical care, expand mental health access in our state, and expand access to more Iowa communities who need sufficient medical providers.
Another one of the big education topics we will deal with soon is education funding. Every year, the governor is required to send her budget recommendations to the legislature by February 1. Once we receive the proposal, we have 30 days to set the Supplemental State Aid for the following year. The importance of setting this funding early in session is to give school districts adequate time to plan their budgets. Education funding has always been a priority for Senate Republicans. Last year alone, under the Republican controlled legislature, we approved nearly $100 million in new funding for K-12 schools. Even as the legislature reconvened in the middle of the pandemic, with an unknown economic impact, that $100 million in new funding was a sustainable promise we kept. Iowa schools can again expect a sustainable and reliable increase in funding for next year.
Protecting Our Second Amendment Rights
One of the other major bills debated this week was Senate Joint Resolution 7, a constitutional amendment guaranteeing the right to bear arms in our state. Iowa is one of only a handful of states without a guaranteed firearm rights in their state constitution. This bill would change that, saying, “The right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed. The sovereign state of Iowa affirms and recognizes this to be a fundamental individual right. Any and all restrictions of this right shall be subject to strict scrutiny.”
Opponents to the bill objected to the use of “strict scrutiny,” but it is one of the most crucial parts of the legislation. Constitutional rights are constitutional rights, guaranteed to us as individuals. Strict scrutiny would ensure any proposed infringements to this right would be reviewed under the highest standard of judicial review. I believe anything affecting your constitutional rights should be held to that same standard.
Constitutional amendments need to be passed by two General Assemblies before going to vote by the people of Iowa. This amendment was passed in the last General Assembly. The House also passed it last week and it is eligible for a vote by Iowans in 2022.
Improving Education Options for Iowa Students
Governor Reynolds released SF 159 last week in an effort to do what all Iowans want, 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 themes of this legislation.
Iowa schools have a strong history of success. However, 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. This bill is narrowly tailored to provide children in failing schools a scholarship to attend a non-public school and ensure all Iowa students have the ability to open enroll to another school district. 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 a standard of either the state or federal government. In some of these districts, students are not allowed to open enroll and to add another layer of frustration for Iowa parents, some of those failing schools have barely opened their doors for the last eleven months to even attempt to educate those students.
The common refrain from opponents of even a modest school choice proposal like this bill is 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. 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 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 immoral 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 using an alternative public education option.