Iowa passed a charter school law in 2002. Since then, the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools has worked to improve the law to ensure more Iowans have the options for an education that meets their learning needs.
A Strong Legislative Partnership Begins
In 2017, Mark Jacobs of Reaching Higher Iowa (RHI) contacted the National Alliance to analyze the state’s charter school law (which was ranked 41 out of 45 at the time) and make recommendations to improve it. After analyzing the shortcomings and barriers to providing more options for educational opportunities, we wrote a draft bill to improve the law.
Going into the 2018 session, we knew the House Education Chairman, Walt Rogers, was a school choice proponent. Various school choice groups in the state, including RHI and the National Alliance, met with Governor Kim Reynolds. She expressed support for school choice, but it was not a priority issue for her administration that year. Weeks later, a wide-ranging education choice bill that included charter schools and private school choice was heard in the House Education Committee, but it died due to lack of support.
During the 2019 session, RHI and the National Alliance decided to try again with a stand-alone charter school bill and again we were met with fierce opposition. The National Alliance testified at a courtesy hearing and the bill died.
Then the World Changed
The COVID-19 pandemic shuttered schools in spring 2020 in Iowa and across the country. As the months went by, Governor Reynolds heard the frustration of parents struggling to educate their children on full-time virtual platforms. She heard concerns of children falling behind in their education. Reynolds urged schools to return to in-person learning. She faced with massive pushback from the larger school districts in the state. Wanting to provide parents with control over their children’s education, Reynolds prioritized legislation to give parents a host of options, which included charter schools, private school choice, and inter-district transfers.
Passing the Bill
Reynolds announced her sweeping education reform package in her Condition of the State address in January 2021. The Senate quickly passed her omnibus education bill (SF159). However, it faced difficulty in the House and was broken into several different bills so each subject could stand or fall on its own merits. The new version of the charter school bill was introduced as HF 813.
After hours of debate, and after voting down dozens of hostile amendments, the bill passed the House by a vote of 55-40. Since similar language had already passed the Senate, we believed HF 813 would eventually pass there as well. Again, opponents offered dozens of hostile amendments and dragged debate out for hours on the Senate floor. However, the final bill passed 30-18 and was sent to Governor Reynolds for her signature.
A Bright Future for the Hawkeye State
On May 19, Governor Reynolds signed the bill into law at Starts Right Here, a youth empowerment nonprofit in Des Moines that plans to apply to open a charter school. Iowa now allows charter school founding groups to apply directly to the state, which will set a high bar for opening charter schools to ensure academic rigor and quality and hold the schools accountable for performance-based results. These changes will attract more charter school providers to the state and support the creation of high-quality public charter schools for Iowa families for many years to come. The National Alliance thanks Governor Reynolds, Senator Amy Sinclair, and Representative Skyler Wheeler, among many others, for their work and leadership on this bill. The future is bright for Iowa’s kids and families.
Russ Simnick is the senior director of state advocacy at the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.