A bill that would have forced some small Iowa schools to close down and merge with a neighboring district has failed to clear even an initial hearing in the Iowa Senate. The legislation called for closing any district with fewer than 750 students.

Senator Brian Schoenjahn, a Democrat from Arlington who is a retired school teacher, was on a three-member panel that killed the bill. “If you have several rural districts that are in declining enrollment, which 90 percent of our schools are, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to combine and then you have a large district with declining enrollment,” Schoenjahn says. “What have we solved?’ According to Schoenjahn, it’s up to local school boards to make consolidation decisions, not the state legislature.

“School districts in rural Iowa are rapidly changing their through delivery of instruction and through distance ed, regional academies, collaborations — we’re seeing a whole transformation going on out here,” Schoenjahn says. “And they’re doing a good job of it themselves.”

Senator Nancy Boettger, a Republican from Harlan, joined Schoenjahn in voting down the bill. She says “tweaks” are fine, but massive changes should wait until after the governor’s “summit” on education this summer. “I think it’s premature to make those demands on school districts right now and to say, ‘At this level, you must consolidate,’ and we can’t have kids riding buses two hours,” Boettger says.

“I mean, I had my kids on the bus for an hour just in the Harlan Community District and they’re throwing up by the time they get to school.” The bill also called for having just one superintendent in each of Iowa’s 99 counties.

Senator Matt McCoy, a Democrat from Des Moines, is the bill’s sponsor, and he was livid after the bill’s defeat. “I think the savings is there and they demonstrated today that they’re going to let their parochial, rural interests dictate what they’re going to do as an education committee,” McCoy said. McCoy argues too much state money is being spent on too many small schools.

“But, ultimately, it’s the kids that end up paying,” McCoy said. There are 359 public school districts in Iowa today, with a total enrollment of nearly 474,00 students.