Efforts to remove barriers to more online schools in Iowa has been put on hold at the statehouse. Advocates for public schools are skeptical about a bill to allow an unlimited number of 100-percent online schools with no brick and mortar component, while backers concede there’s too much conflict to get the bill passed this year. Representative Ron Jorgensen, a Republican from Sioux City, led last year’s movement to lift restrictions on homeschoolers. This year, Jorgensen is sponsoring a bill he says would again expand school choice.
“One size does not fit all and online education does provide an alternative way of educating kids,” Jorgensen says. Currently there are only two school districts in Iowa that have 100-percent online schools. They’re Camanche Community Schools and Clayton Ridge schools, both in eastern Iowa. The bill authorizes additional online schools that would sign new performance contracts with the state. They could enroll as many students as they want from any district statewide. Amanda Brezina of Des Moines enrolled two of her children in the virtual academy that’s part of Clayton Ridge. She feared her oldest son would be bullied in a regular school.
“He’s very advanced and young for his grade, so this school has been very valuable for us,” Brezina says. “And my second son is testing several years ahead of his age.” Brezina says the curriculum provided by a for-profit company allows her younger son to advance at his own pace. But, critics from teachers to administrators to school boards have their doubts. Some argue public schools could be harmed if the virtual schools divert students and their state dollars away from local districts. Tom Marek is with the School Administrators of Iowa.
“We get a little sensitive when people say start taking shots at public schools saying we’re not doing the job,” Marek says. He urges lawmakers to give last year’s education reform package a chance to work before opening up more online schools. So far, only one group is registered in favor of the bill, a national education reform movement known as Students First. Patty Link is their representative at the statehouse.
“It is not intending to knock our public schools. I don’t see anywhere in (the bill) that implies that, nor is the intent to do that,” Link says. Students First has been promoting education reform in Iowa, backing mostly Republican candidates in the last election. Link says under the bill, the Iowa Board of Education would provide strong oversight for online schools. Critics say that takes local control out of the mix. Osage Republican Josh Byrnes is managing the bill. He recently declined to send it on to the full House Education Committee, but urged backers and critics to try to find consensus.
“There are just a lot of unknowns and a lot of what ifs, and we need a bill brought back to us that doesn’t have those what ifs,” Byrnes said. Backers believe when they take up the bill again next year, they should have plenty of evidence that the online schools are doing a good job.