Iowa lawmakers introduce bills that would give school districts choice on early school start

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DES MOINES, Iowa — At least three bills filed this session would restore school districts' power to decide whether to start the school year early, a move being closely watched by local officials and the tourism industry.

Republicans and Democrats in both legislative chambers have proposed measures with similar language that would give school districts and private schools authority over when to start their school calendar year, eliminating the state Department of Education's ability to approve or disapprove waivers for early starts.

A House education subcommittee advanced one of the bills to the full committee Thursday. The other two bills are in the Senate. One has been assigned to an education subcommittee.

"The law says what it does say, and the waivers are possible and traditionally they have been granted on an automatic basis for many, many years," said Rep. Greg Forristall, a Republican from Macedonia. "To abruptly change that without a conversation, I believe is a bit unfair, so we will have the conversation."

State law requires districts to start school no earlier than the calendar week that includes Sept. 1, unless they have a waiver showing that schedule would create a "significant negative educational impact." In the past, the state has granted those waivers automatically, but Gov. Terry Branstad has complained the practice ignores state law and affects tourism — including state fair attendance.

Branstad sent a letter last month to education department Director Brad Buck, directing him to stop granting the automatic waivers. Buck responded by telling school district leaders the practice would end.

On Wednesday, the education department released guidelines for the waivers. They include a requirement that districts prove through research how students would be negatively affected, as defined by state law, if the school calendar started on time.

Republican House Speaker Kraig Paulsen said he believes the Legislature can reach a compromise bill.

"I think it probably serves everybody best to do some clarification on a law that appears to be outdated from everybody's perspective," he said.

Democratic Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal said local school leaders and tourism officials should work together to find a solution, given Branstad's stance on the issue.

"I personally think that's the only alternative that will result in any kind of change," he said.

Branstad spokesman Jimmy Centers said if both chambers pass a bill, the governor would carefully review it.

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