Advocates for public schools tried to stop a bill in the Iowa House today that may expand for-profit online education in the state.
The bill lifts the cap on the number of school districts that can open-enroll students from all over the state, and then turn over the state per-pupil funding to for-profit companies for full-time online instruction.
Currently, two Iowa school districts, CAM in southwest Iowa and Clayton Ridge in northeast Iowa, contract with for-profit companies for full-time online classes.
Rep. Mary Mascher said the programs are plagued with high dropout rates and low test scores.
“When you have a 40 percent dropout rate, a 50 percent dropout rate, it tells me this is not meeting the needs of our students,” Mascher said. “We’re spending a great deal of money out of state without any accountability.”
Nearly $7 million in state funding has been diverted to the for-profit companies. Mascher offered an amendment to require an audit of the companies, but it was rejected on procedural grounds.
Current enrollment in the program is capped at 800 students. The bill allows for unlimited enrollment, and advocates for rural schools fear they will lose students through open enrollment into the online schools. That would mean a loss of per-pupil funding, which is hard for small districts to absorb.
“This is the wild, wild west of online learning,” said Rep. Amy Nielson (D-North Liberty).
But backers say students have thrived in the online setting who were not doing well in traditional classrooms.
Rep. Tyler Wheeler says the current cap of 800 students has not been met in the past. He doesn’t expect a mass migration into online schools.
“If you do believe that we have great public schools then I don't know why we're fear-mongering that we might be losing students to the online portion of education,” Wheeler said. “Does a traditional classroom work for every single one of our 480,000-plus students, or is it possible that perhaps for a small subset of those students an online setting might be beneficial?”
The bill bans the companies from offering rebates to families who enroll. It also strikes a requirement that the Department of Education survey at least 10 percent of students open-enrolled for full-time online school or home schooled.
The bill goes back to the Senate.
Follow Joyce Russell on Twitter @russell_ipr