Update on 2021 Legislative Session
We apologize for the length of this email but we’ve received a lot of questions on the school choice bill(s) and the unfunded mandates that have been introduced this year and wanted to make sure our schools and families have all the relevant information.
The Legislature wrapped up week seven and is beginning week eight. The session is scheduled to end April 30. Friday, March 5 marks the first “funnel” deadline when all bills must be through the subcommittee and committee process in the chamber it was introduced in to be eligible for further consideration this session. There are exceptions for budget and tax bills, bills introduced by legislative leadership, etc.
We have a number of issues the Iowa Association of Christian Schools (IACS) is tracking. We wanted to take a moment to update you on a few of them:
The Governor’s Education Reform and School Choice Bill
The Governor introduced a bill making some reforms and introducing public, charter, and private school choice initiatives. We were undecided on that bill for a number of reasons we posted on previously. We had action alerts out for both the Senate and the House and many of you clicked the link and emailed your Senator and/or your Representative and encouraged them to improve and pass the bill. We appreciate your willingness to weigh in! THANK YOU!
The Senate passed that bill early in the session and it has been sitting in the House education committee awaiting action. This week, the House Education Committee Chair split the Governor’s Bill into three separate bills. HSB 240 passed subcommittee last week and two have subcommittees March 2. We are current declared “undecided” on each of them and will outline each bill below. Senate File 159, for all practical purposes, is dead and has been replaced by these three new bills in the House. The House didn’t make any substantive changes to the Senate version but simply broke it up into the following three bills:
- HSB 240 – “The Rest” of the Governor’s education bill that was in SF 159.
- HSB 242 – Charter Schools
- HSB 243 – Students First Scholarship (ESA)
HSB 240 – Statewide Database, Open Enrollment, Tuition and Textbook Tax Credit and Other Provisions
HSB 240 includes two sections that are of interest to IACS: The first section creates a statewide student information management system (database). This would require public and private schools statewide to either replace their current student information software or add another layer of state-prescribed software that would collect data for the state. We are vehemently opposed to this provision of the bill and join public and private school interest groups in opposing its inclusion in any bill this session. The provision would cost public and private schools approximately $7 per student per year, payable to the state; is duplicative; and ignores the fact that our current systems work best with the realities of our schools, our websites, communication tools, etc. We believe it is wholly inappropriate for the state to include private schools in this program, especially when the genesis of the idea was frustration with data collection during a temporary situation (the pandemic) and could be remedied without forcing an expensive, one-size-fits-all system on Iowa’s schools. We believe it is bad public policy and we are disappointed it hasn’t been removed from the bill yet.
The second section of this bill that is of interest to IACS and our families is the tuition and textbook tax credit changes. The tuition and textbook tax credit is currently 25% of the first $1,000 spent by public and private school parents on educational expenses for each dependent. As of a couple of years ago, 70% of those credits were claimed by public school families. The tax credit is currently uncapped. This changes in this bill raise it to 50% of the first $2,000 educational expenses for each dependent. It also includes homeschool families and is refundable, meaning that it will assist lower income families not currently itemizing or subject to state income tax. These are welcome changes that will help many Iowa families significantly. We appreciate that it is available to all Iowa families of school-aged children and the increases are a welcome relief for families spending significantly more on education in private settings. We will be encouraging the legislature to get this over the finish line this year.
HSB 242 – Charter Schools
Iowa is currently dead-last when it comes to charter opportunities for Iowa families. IACS is a “school choice” organization and we support the inclusion of charter options for Iowa families to the degree their introduction and expansion grows at a rate commensurate with private school choice. Iowa currently only has a couple of school-district-run charters that are, arguably, not really charters in the sense most people think of them. We support charters having alternative methods of forming as outlined in the bill but we need to ensure that the number of charters is limited until the State is willing to provide universal school choice or make significant strides toward it simultaneous with any charter expansion. We are undecided and we hope that the state legislature chooses to pass legislation that ensures all ships rise. We don’t need the legislature picking more winners and losers. We simply want families to be empower to make ANY choice that is best for their child.
HSB 243 – Students First Scholarship (ESA)
This bill takes the Students First Scholarship program from the Governor’s initial bill and stands it on its own. Many House Republicans have shown reluctance to pass an ESA this year. We are concerned about this bill on two levels: First, that it is based on “failing” public schools and only pertains to families currently attending or entering kindergarten assigned to one of the 34 public school buildings on that list and, secondly, that the overall impact on parental choice is tiny and doesn’t allow us to compete with the current uncapped charter school legislation. We’ll be encouraging the legislature to pick any of the ESA bills we are declared in favor of and run one of those alongside charter expansion or find ways to bolster private school choice while limiting the number of charters available in the state.
HF 585 – “Safe and Sound” Program by the Department of Public Safety
This bill was introduced by the Iowa Department of Public Safety without consulting with education stakeholders first. It does a number of things including officer training; creates a system for accepting “anonymous” (this has been debated all session what that means) reports of self-harm, bullying, threats or actions of violence, etc.; the development by the Department of a voluntary violence prevention curriculum for use by schools, and participating requirements including mandating private religious schools advertise their hotline and programming despite our inability to vet the program for quality or assure that a person on the other end of a phone call or report understands the context or cultural considerations of the student. The bill also requires we share our emergency operations plans with the Department, which may share it with local law enforcement.
We have weighed in on our concerns and currently oppose the bill. The House amended the bill to allow schools to advertise the program digitally instead of posting paper posters on our walls in three locations. Although better, it is still an unacceptable intrusion considering our schools already have programing and resources and we believe even a one-time digital advertisement on a website, email, or other form of communication simply confuses the school community on which resources are vetted by the school and parents. We have practical, religious liberty, and other constitutional concerns about this bill.
The bill has passed committee and is awaiting debate on the House floor. The Senate version has failed to advance through subcommittee at this time. Please use our action alert and ask your Representative to vote no on this bill and encourage the Department of Public Safety to work with stakeholders in the interim if they want to find ways to help our communities and school families. It is challenging for a legislature to vote against buzz words like “suicide,” “violence,” and “safety” if they don’t hear from you that you believe your school is a safe environment with plans and resources already in place without this troublesome program being enacted.
HF 167 – Seizure Disorders and Teacher Training
This bill has come up a number of years in a row and follows many other mandates by the legislature on teacher training. We have also seen Diabetes training and other training requirements pop up. We are declared opposed to the bill. We understand the need to be able to address health and safety issues in our schools. What we oppose is mandates on private, religious schools; especially when the current system of teacher training mandates is overloaded. Despite offering to meeting with organizations pushing this and mandates like it, we were not taken up on that offer and was surprised by the bill this year. We will be responding to a request made recently to meet over the Summer.
We have worked with other private and public school stakeholders to suggest and amendment that replaces the bill with a study in the interim on a proposal to revamp the teacher training requirements to stretch out some of the timelines, put trainings in a rotator for CEUs, and create a system where the appropriate educators can get the appropriate trainings on a rotating schedule that better fits in with the financial and personal time constraints of Iowa’s teachers and administrators. We believe there is a win/win solution for interest groups and schools without piling on more unfunded training mandates. Please use our action alert to email your Representative and ask them to support an amendment that would create a teacher training study in the interim.
We have weighed in on other bills too. You can see a list of the most relevant bills we are declared on by visiting our “Key Legislation” page on our website. There are a number of bills we are supporting or monitoring. We’ll also be keeping a scorecard on how Representatives and Senators vote on key bills and will provide a link to that as these bills get votes on the floor of each chamber. Our current action alerts can be found on our “Campaigns”page on our website. Please consider emailing your Representative about these bills today. All of our current resources can be found by visiting iowachristianschools.org and clicking on “Action Center.”
Please don’t hesitate to contact us through our website if you have any questions or concerns. We are working hard every day to ensure the interests of Iowa’s Christian school parents and their educators are heard at the Capitol.
*03/05/21 Update – Each of the bills mentioned above have passed the first “funnel” deadline, meaning they are still eligible for consideration moving forward. The school choice bills will get new numbers (we’ll update them on this post soon) today or Monday. HSB 240 was amended in committee to remove the database (good news!) and reduce the increase in the tuition and textbook tax credit to 25% of the first $2,000 without the refundability in the original versions, meaning it is not helpful to low income Iowans who don’t itemize or have a state tax burden. The issue is a long ways from over this session and bill numbers and structure will most likely change dramatically before the end of session.