As expected from the chairperson of the Education Committee, Iowa State Sen. Amy Sinclair, R-Allerton, is primarily focused on legislation directly affecting Iowa’s schools; however, reports from this past year of teachers struggling with disruptive and violent student behavior leads her to believe legislative measures could provide some kind of solution or at least be discussed.
Representing Iowa Senate District 14, Sinclair serves on a number of standing committees, including: commerce, judiciary and rules and administration. She is also chair of the Government Oversight Committee, chair of the Education Committee and vice-chair of the Education Appropriations Subcommittee. Sinclair is a member of the Legislative Council and School Finance Formula Review Committee.
Last year, the senator unsurprisingly prioritized education, particularly the inequities in transportation costs for K-12 schools. Disparities in funding were noticeable, especially in rural districts. Some schools were paying as much as $900 per student to bus kids to schools, according to the Cedar Rapids Gazette in March 2018. Moving forward into the next legislative session, Sinclair hopes those inequities and more will be fully dealt with.
“Education funding is always a priority, and it’s the top priority of my education committee,” Sinclair said. “For the past couple of years I have been working on the built-in inequities that are in our funding formula. Those two primary inequities were that built-in district cost per pupil versus what the state cost per pupil was, where some districts could levy more locally.”
The other primary inequity was in transportation, which is what Sinclair focused on last year. If the state invests the amount that it agreed to last year, all of the transportation inequities will be “bought down to the statewide average,” she added. However, Sinclair acknowledged some districts will be paying more than others.
“But they’re not paying more than what the state average would be,” she said. “…Buying that transportation down to average at least gets them to a place where they’re comparable. So hopefully this is the last year of buying that down to the statewide average. I’m excited we’ve been able to make that happen.”
What that can build up to, Sinclair claimed, is a $26-27 million annual investment, subject to “whatever the (Supplemental State Aid) is for categorical funds.” When the legislators increase the state aid funding formula, Sinclair said “it also increases that transportation so there’s a built-in inflationary factor.”
She added, “Seriously, I’ve been working on this for five years. And to have this now at a point where we’re seeing the final installment of getting everybody bought down and getting an inflation factor built in — yeah! And knowing we’re committing annually to buying that district inequity, that’s a big deal to me as well.”
A special report released in May by Dan Winters of WHO TV Channel 13 chronicled the experiences of Iowa teachers trying to manage disruptive students inside the classrooms. Educators argued they have very little control over violent and destructive behaviors of students. They are often required not to physically prevent students from causing property damage.
Sinclair thinks this issues has to be addressed even further by legislators.
“The senate passed a bill last year that convened a task force to review violent classroom behaviors … Unfortunately, the house didn’t take it up,” Sinclair said, noting that these behaviors are affecting the learning environment of other students and also make it more difficult for teachers to do their jobs.
Although disappointed the bill didn’t pass, Sinclair said the issue is clearly impacting education in Iowa and took it upon herself — prompted by her majority leader — to take a closer. She had contacted representatives of the Department of Education, administrators, teachers and parents to get a broad view of the situation, including both urban and rural districts.
“They’re not isolated. Students aren’t having violent behaviors without extenuating circumstances as well,” Sinclair said. “The story is pretty consistent. I think there is not a broad understanding for educators and administrators of what is exactly in federal law surrounding restrictive environment and how we preserve the rights of students with disabilities first.”
But at the same time, she added, also preserving the rights of other students and teachers in the classrooms. At this point, trying “to find a logical and consistent understanding of how” to deal with the problem and how lawmakers can begin to address it on a statewide level to protect the rights of all students and staff will challenging.
“All students do have a right to a free and appropriate public education, and we need to start balancing those rights and using reasonable measures to make sure that we’re protecting everyone’s rights,” Sinclair said.
She also noted that teachers should not become students’ mental health providers.
Sinclair assumes Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds will include funding, again, for the public-private partnerships with rural broadband, which she said is “essential” for building a skilled and innovated workforce. Discussions regarding a strong rural broadband infrastructure continue to gain momentum, and Sinclair said there is no reason for Iowa to not continue down that path.
“I’ve met with people who are looking to do the build out — those private companies that need to do the build out. It doesn’t make sense for them unless the match is high enough, so I think we need to make sure we’re properly funding it so we can make sure the infrastructure is there,” Sinclair said. “They can manage it once the system is up and running.”
Although most of the focus is in rural areas, Sinclair said the system should extend to the urban areas as well. Once the infrastructure is in place, then a system can begin functioning.
“But working on that initial install in rural areas is super cost prohibitive, and so making sure that all pencils out for those companies that are doing it may be the biggest challenge,” she said.
E-cigarettes and vaping
Vaping caused quite a stir this past year, and legislators are taking notice.Sinclair said she sometimes wants to pound her against the wall on some of these issues. This may be one of them. There is talk, she said, about lawmakers wanting to raise the legal vaping and smoking age from 18 to 21.
“And yet we’re encouraging 17-and-a-half-year-olds to join the military,” Sinclair said. “In my mind, there’s a disconnect … You can choose the leader of the free world at 18, but you can’t choose whether or not to drink or smoke?”
Contact Christopher Braunschweig at 641-792-3121 ext. 6560 or firstname.lastname@example.org