- Associated Press - Thursday, February 23, 2017

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) - An unlimited number of students in Iowa will be able to enroll in for-profit virtual schools that receive public education funding under a bill a Republican-led legislative panel approved Thursday.

The legislation comes amid growing discussion at the Iowa Legislature this session over whether to expand educational opportunities outside of regular brick and mortar public schools. Some groups have praised the effort while others have raised concerns over its potential impact on state funding for public education.

A subcommittee of the Senate Education Committee signed off on the bill, which includes several provisions beyond online learning. It now heads to the full committee.

Enrollment in virtual schools is currently capped in Iowa to several hundred students. Those students from around the state are technically part of two school districts - CAM Community Schools in Anita and Clayton Ridge Community Schools in Guttenberg - that contract with two out-of-state, for-profit companies that offer online curriculum. The system allows state education dollars to go to the companies, though the districts also receive some money.

The bill would remove the cap and remove a stipulation that such virtual schools be available through just the two school districts.

Sen. Amy Sinclair, R-Allerton and the bill’s sponsor, said the proposal gives more students and parents additional choices over educational opportunities. She also said it would allow more Iowa school districts to offer online learning that could come down to a few online classes.

“The online option actually gives local school districts additional options as well, particularly when they can’t find a teacher for a hard-to-fill area,” she said. “So it’s not just opening it up to more students to do the full online, but it’s also opening it up for school districts to access and use those tools that are available as well.”

Representatives for some education groups agreed with Sinclair. Margaret Buckton, of Rural School Advocates of Iowa and the Urban Education Network of Iowa, is registered undecided on the bill but said she supported the effort of allowing more online opportunities for students. She said the issue shouldn’t be viewed as for-profit companies coming into the state, because school districts go to great lengths to ensure there are education standards in place.

“It allows public school districts to work in a myriad of ways to provide different programs to students,” she said.

Virtual schools in Iowa have been around for several years and were originally intended to be a pilot program with an expiration date. Gov. Terry Branstad nixed a sunset date in a budget veto last year, saying at the time that some students in the program “may be the targets of bullying, medically fragile, or individuals who struggle in the traditional classroom setting.”

Still, some groups questioned the expansion and its impact on public dollars. Melissa Petersen is a spokeswoman for the Iowa State Education Association, which represents 34,000 school employees in the state. She said she hoped the final version of the bill would include strong language on oversight and accreditation.

“What is happening to the money that flows through a district now with this exploitation of open enrollment?” she said. “How are we making sure there’s accountability on the back end when the for-profit company now receives that amount of taxpayer dollars?”

Robert Rafferty is a lobbyist for K12 Inc., the company that contracts with Clayton Ridge. He said he doesn’t expect the company to immediately expand its offerings to other school districts. He said the bill would simply make sure the current cap doesn’t leave out families.

Amid the discussion over this legislation and other education bills, Republican lawmakers are considering the creation of education savings accounts. It could potentially allow students to use state funding for school-related expenses such as private school tuition, textbooks, tutoring and online learning.

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