A strong public education system is vital to Iowa’s success, which is why public education is the single largest line item on the state’s balance sheet, accounting for more than 56% of the entire state budget. Education is a worthy investment, and since fiscal year 2012, Republican leaders have had a strong record of increasing school funding year-over-year for a total increase of $1.1 billion. Since fiscal year 2018, under Governor Reynolds’ leadership and a Republican-controlled Legislature, Iowa's total public education budget has increased by nearly $500 million.
Last year, the Governor introduced the Students First Act, a sweeping education bill aimed at expanding options for Iowa families. Nearly every one of the proposals was signed into law, resulting in more opportunities for charter schools, open enrollment, innovative learning experiences, and tax credits and deductions to reduce educational expenses for both parents and teachers. But there is still more to do.
In order to ensure that every child is successful in school, we must provide options, ensure transparency and engage families in the educational experience.
Governor Reynolds proposes:
- Allowing a portion of Iowa’s per pupil educational funds to follow eligible students to private schools or other educational programs;
- Requiring all public schools to publish course syllabuses, materials and available library books online;
- Requiring all high school students to pass the Civics portion of the U.S. Naturalization Service Test to graduate from high school;
- Eliminating the need for AEA approval to place students receiving special education services in competent private instruction; and
- Eliminating the requirement for PK-12 school librarians to have a Master’s degree.
Parents who choose to move their eligible children from public to private schools or other educational programs will receive a portion of the “per pupil” funds allocated annually by the state to use for qualified educational expenses. These include tuition, tutoring, curriculum or material costs, vocational or life skills training, and community college or other higher education expenses.
Funds are deposited into an educational savings account (ESA) each year until students graduate from high school. Accounts are maintained following graduation and remaining funds can be used until the student is 23 years of age, at which point the account balance reverts to the state general fund.
The Students First Scholarships will begin in fiscal year 2023 and will be effective for the 2022-23 school year.
- Eligible students must be currently enrolled in a public school for the 2021-22 school year, and have a household income that does not exceed 400% of the federal poverty level (FPL) or have an individualized educational plan (IEP).
- The current FPL for a family of four is $26,500. Therefore, a family of four with a household income of $106,000 or less is eligible for a scholarship. Income eligibility is the same as that of Iowa’s School Tuition Organization programs.
- Scholarships will be capped at a total of 10,000 during the first year of implementation and divided equally among the two eligibility groups. If the total number of available scholarships for either group is not used and a waiting list exists for the other group, the remainder will be awarded to those eligible applicants.
The current per pupil allocation that will follow a student who withdraws from a public school is $5,359, or 70% of a student’s state education funding. The remaining $2,270 or 30% will remain with the state to be reallocated to smaller, often rural, school districts. Because in these districts, the loss of funding for just one student can have a significant impact.
Other student funding generated by local taxes and federal funds will remain with the respective school districts — even though the students it’s intended for will no longer be educated there. It’s estimated that Iowa’s public schools will retain around $1,458 per pupil in local property tax dollars for each student who leaves to attend private school or other educational programs, generating an automatic boost to their budget.
Throughout the pandemic, parents had more visibility than ever before into their children’s school experience, sparking a national movement for transparency in education. While Iowa’s public schools are required to annually assure to the Iowa Department of Education that they are teaching to the Iowa Academic Standards, they are not currently required to post specific information such as course syllabuses and class materials publicly where it can be reviewed by the families they serve.
Parent Engagement and School Transparency
- Public schools will be required to publish their class materials on school and/or district websites where parents and families can review it. Information shall include course syllabuses or written summaries, state academic standards, and titles of or links to textbooks used for classes.
- Public schools will also be required to publish a comprehensive list of books available in their libraries and provide information about the process for filing a concern about a book. If the concern is not addressed by the school district within 30 days, it can be appealed directly to the State Board of Education.
- State funding will be withheld from schools that do not comply with these requirements.
Fostering Citizenship Among all Students
- High school students will be required to pass the civics section of the United States Naturalization Test to graduate from high school. The exam tests knowledge of U.S. history and government.
- Students must score at least 70% to pass the test and can take it more than once to satisfy the graduation requirement.
Opportunities should exist equally for every student, and any barriers that could prevent students from reaching their potential should be removed.
Private Instruction for Children with Disabilities
- Currently, public school students receiving special education services can only be placed in competent private instruction with the approval of the Area Education Agency (AEA) Director of Special Education.
- This requirement should be removed, allowing parents to decide what instruction is best for their children.
Late Open Enrollment Exception for Siblings
- Currently, when students who are harassed, bullied, or have serious health conditions are granted late open enrollment for good cause to move to a school that better fits their needs, their siblings and step-siblings are not automatically eligible to move with them. They are instead subject to the approval of the school boards of their resident district and the receiving district.
- An amendment to the law would grant open enrollment to all family members, keeping siblings together for the benefit of the vulnerable child.
Iowa currently requires teaching licenses and Bachelor’s degrees for school librarians who work in elementary, middle, and high schools. However, in schools where PreK-12 students attend together and share a library, school librarians are required to have a Master’s degree. This requirement is exorbitant for school librarians and creates resource challenges for smaller school districts.
- Eliminate the requirement for a Master’s degree from the educational qualifications for Iowa school librarians.