DES MOINES — Tempers flared during a House committee meeting on online education that saw one lawmaker walk out in disgust, claiming she was disrespected by the CEO of a company that has set up an online school in Iowa.
The expansion of online learning in the state has become one of the most controversial parts of the governor’s education reform proposal, now that two school districts have set up online schools and run recruitment ads for the past few months.
Lawmakers have asked for a legal opinion from the Attorney General’s Office on whether the schools were set up legally under current law, while both the House and the Senate have changed the portions of the governor’s education reform proposal that allow the schools to continue to operate.
On Wednesday, the House education committee asked representatives of the two companies that plan to open online schools in the fall to talk to lawmakers.
K12 Inc. partnered with Clayton Ridge Community School District to operate a K-6 school. It has received 141 applications, according to Superintendent Allan Nelson. The CAM Community School District partnered with Connections Academy for a K-12 school. According to Connections Academy CEO Barbara Dreyer, the school has 593 applications.
Lawmakers peppered Dreyer with questions about class size, teacher salaries and curriculum.
Teacher salaries vary from state-to-state, Dreyer told lawmakers, with an average salary of about $45,000. Maximum class sizes can be up to 50 students for elementary school children and 210 for high school students.
Rep. Jeremy Taylor, R-Sioux City, a teacher in his home district, said those teacher-student ratios don’t give teachers enough time with the students.
“Our teachers do not have to provide lesson plans. We provide those,” Dreyer responded. “Our teachers do not have to engage in classroom management to the extent of other teachers.” She said because of this, the company is able to “create efficiencies” that allow instructors to take a higher number of students.
Rep. Mary Mascher, D-Iowa City, a retired teacher, told Dreyer that teaching isn’t just about course work, but making a connection with students.
Dreyer responded that Mascher could “see for yourself” the relationships that Connections Academy teachers build with students and invited her to one of the schools. Mascher, who said she was coming into the discussion with a bias against 100 percent online learning, didn’t like the tone or choice of words in Dreyer’s response.
“You just stop. I will not be disrespected like that,” Mascher said and got up to leave the meeting.
“Ma’am, I’m not trying to disrespect you,” Dreyer replied. “I’m trying to say this is a real program and I’d appreciate the opportunity for you to talk with a teacher and see for yourself.”
The meeting adjourned after that.
Rep. Greg Foristall, R-Macedonia, chairman of the education committee said he didn’t think that bringing in the guests ultimately changed anyone’s mind on the committee.
“No,” he said. “But maybe it will change the minds of some people in the public.”