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Senate advances school start date bill

BY REBECCA MORIN | MARCH 11, 2015 5:00 AM

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One side of the school starting-date debate is moving forward.

The Iowa Senate on Tuesday afternoon passed Senate File 227, which would allow school districts to determine the school starting dates. The bill that gained a fair amount of bipartisan support, with 32 in favor and 17 dissenting.

“I believe that government closest to the people is best to respond to the people of the community,” said Sen. Amy Sinclair, R-Allerton. “[Local government] knows the community better than a one-size-fits-all statewide mandate.”

The bill will now make its way to the Iowa House — in which representatives are set to vote on a rival starting-date bill.

The House bill would allow the earliest starting date to be the week of Aug. 23, which is the last day of the Iowa State Fair.

Sen. David Johnson, R-Ocheyedan, said he was surprised by how many votes the bill got, but he believes that if the Senate bill makes it through the House, Gov. Terry Branstad will veto it.

“There are only two choices here, either Aug. 23 and after, or the existing law, which says you have to start the week on Sept. 1,” Johnson said. “Those are the only two options, and the governor’s made it very clear he wants a resolution to this situation.”

For the past 30 years, the state law required schools to start the week of Sept. 1.

Schools, however, could apply for waivers, and most of the time, they received them.

Last year alone, all but two schools were granted the waivers.

The waiver was restructured in December 2014, making it harder for schools to get.

Schools must prove that students’ academic achievement is being hindered by starting school on the date required by Iowa law under the new waiver guidelines.

“We should listen to our local school districts, the 336 out of the 338 that sought waivers to start earlier,” Sen. Herman Quirmbach, D-Ames, said. “They are asking essentially for local control, and that is what this bill will give them.”

Quirmbach said one of the key reasons he believes school districts should decide starting dates are for dual-enrollment courses.

Dual-enrollment courses involve high-school students taking college classes, and the students may receive credit toward their high-school diplomas and toward their college degrees.

“It’s stuff like that, it’s helping kids trying to get a head start on college, and that’s why I'm arguing for local control,” Quirmbach said.

But the debate isn’t just about who controls starting dates; it really boils down to money.

Johnson, who represents the Iowa Great Lakes region, said between Memorial Day and Labor Day, that region sees about 1 million visitors, which brings in about $1 million.

He said that brings in taxes that could be collected by the state treasury, which would eventually be used by the Legislature to spend.

“We keep hearing that we need to put more money into pre-K-12 education, and yet the education establishment says that we can’t keep our businesses open to collect more sale taxes,” Johnson said.

Another big player in the debate is the State Fair. The fair, which will run from Aug. 13-23 this year, draws a number of tourists to Iowa, in addition to requiring large student involvement.

“On the one hand, the schools don’t want to be told what to do, and on the other hand we can’t continue to collect revenue that supports the schools,” Johnson said. “It just doesn’t make sense to me.”


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