Late Tuesday, the House passed two significant education bills: one requiring more openness for classroom planning and supplies, and the other including the proposed education budget for fiscal year 2023.
The 2022 legislative session began with controversy over Senate President Jake Chapman’s assertions of a “sinister plan” against children, fury over specific books found in some Iowa schools, and a proposal to make instructors who discuss “obscene information” subject to criminal penalties. Gov. Kim Reynolds has proposed a new education law that will establish private school scholarships and force schools to follow rigorous transparency guidelines.
The transparency law passed mainly along party lines on Tuesday, but it was a long way from the more contentious education legislation that had been introduced earlier in the session. House File 2577, sponsored by Rep. Garrett Gobble, a middle school history teacher, aims to “down the temperature on hyperbole surrounding education issues.”
“I hope a change like this will encourage parents to engage,” Gobble, R-Ankeny, said. “I’ve always wished I had an opening for parents to trust me, and I believe this is it.”
Democrats were opposed to both the transparency law and the planned education budget. Rep. Steven Hansen, D-Sioux City, called the proposals a “assault on public schools,” citing a shortage of funds and Chapman’s early-session rhetoric.
“Let’s quit using our public school students – both at the K-12 level and at the Regents universities – let’s quit using them as punching bags,” Hansen said.
The legislation will now be considered by the Senate.
Teachers in public schools would be required to submit their lesson plans and materials online for parents to examine under House File 2577. Governor Kim Reynolds’ first plan asked instructors to upload a list of all lesson materials for the year in two large batches: once at the start of the school year and again at the end of winter break.
The House passed a modified version of the bill on Tuesday that permits instructors to upload class materials to online sites such as Google Classroom or Canvas on a regular basis. A civil penalty of up to $5,000 would be imposed on schools that failed to submit educational materials.
Rep. Phil Thompson, R-Jefferson, asserted that parents have a “basic right to know what their children are being taught,” and that many schools have already adopted similar practices.
“These transparency requirements reflect the best practices being used across our state,” Thompson said.
Democrats said that the new rules would place extra burdens on instructors, who would have to transfer class materials to the internet, and on schools, which would have to establish and administer new web sites to house the curriculum.
“That’s going to take time away from learning,” said Rep. Mary Mascher, D-Iowa City, a former teacher. “And to me, the most important thing we can do is savor and save that time teachers have with their students.”
The bill had Gobble’s support. The new criteria, he claimed, will help pupils who missed class and urge more parents to be involved in their children’s education.
“It takes me approximately one minute to copy and paste materials to the learning software,” Gobble said.
Rep. Sharon Steckman, D-Mason City, a former elementary school teacher, said that uploading lesson plans for numerous topics in an elementary school classroom would take “a lot more than a minute.”
The bill passed 60-36 in the House, with one Republican voting no and two Democrats voting yes.
Reynolds’ 2022 education bill featured a state-funded private school scholarship scheme, which spawned House File 2577. The governor’s proposal would allow public school children to move to a private school and use a portion of their per-student funding to pay for tuition.
Last session, the House rejected a similar proposal on private school scholarships. This year’s governor’s proposal, which diverts some funds to rural schools, has fared no better, never making it to a full House committee vote.
However, the governor’s complete bill is moving forward in the Senate, where it is slated to be debated on the floor on Wednesday.
After the House passed its transparency bill and the sun sank over the Iowa Capitol, legislators turned their attention to another divisive issue: the education budget.
House File 2575 proposes funding for the Department of Education, the Board of Regents, job training programs, and a variety of scholarships administered by the College Student Aid Commission.
The law establishes a new $12 million scholarship program to address Iowa’s workforce’s most pressing needs, especially teachers. The goal of the program is to encourage students to major in high-demand fields and work in Iowa after graduation.
The House also changed the budget to allow schools to give their employees a $1,000 incentive. Reynolds stated in January that the state will utilize federal COVID-19 relief funds to pay $1,000 retention bonuses to classroom teachers, but the initiative did not extend to other members of the school staff. Teachers and staff would be able to deduct the sum from their net income when filing taxes under the budget plan enacted Tuesday.
“The education bill… has an emphasis on Iowans, along with Iowa students, with increases in many programs: loan repayment programs, tuition grants, funding for community colleges and (programs to) help address our mental health issues,” said Rep. David Kerr, R-Morning Sun.
Democrats presented a slew of amendments aimed at boosting funds for a variety of programs. All of them were defeated on the House floor. Rep. Tracy Ehlert, D-Cedar Rapids, said the budget “isn’t terrible,” but it lacks funds for key objectives, including the Board of Regents.
Rep. Dave Williams, D-Cedar Falls, suggested a $12.3 million raise to the Regents universities, which have not seen a state allocation increase in recent years.
“We all share in investing in public education because the recipients of that education go on to have solid careers and start and raise families in a financially stable environment,” Williams said. “They help Iowa grow.”
The $12 million labor grant and incentive program, according to Kerr, has taken the place of increased Regents money for the coming fiscal year.
“Although we may disagree on how to find our Regent universities, I believe funding the students is the proper way to go,” Kerr said.
Democrats answered that, despite the new scholarship program, a lack of state financing for the Regents institutions, lower pay, and increased tuition would encourage students to seek jobs in other states.
“Not funding our Regent institutions forces our students to make decisions that move them out of state, or forces them to make decisions to go elsewhere, because other states are investing the resources that support their higher education goals,” Rep. Cindy Winckler, D-Davenport, said.
With a vote of 37-57, the House rejected Williams’ amendment to raise the general budget appropriation for the Regents universities.
The entire budget request for education was approved by a bipartisan vote of 58-36. Two Democrats supported the bill, while two Republicans opposed it.
The debate about “obscene content” in schools dominated the first weeks of the 2022 legislative session. Legislators, led by Senate President Jake Chapman, introduced proposals to make it illegal for instructors or schools to give “pornography” to kids, a discussion sparked by a few contentious books with sexual content.
The first Senate measure stalled in the middle of the second funnel. Similar legislation was never brought up in the House.
Rep. Sandy Salmon, R-Janesville, proposed an amendment to the House measure dealing with pornographic materials in schools, echoing the Senate idea to punish “the few bad actors” who would offer obscene content to youngsters in a school.
“Pornography is every bit as dangerous and lethal as tobacco, alcohol and drugs, yet we are going to allow it in the very place kids spend most of their day,” Salmon said.
After Kerr questioned the amendment’s relevance to the bill, it was declared out of order. Salmon requested a procedural vote to discuss the bill, which was defeated 90-3 by a bipartisan vote.