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School choice in Iowa


WORLD Radio - School choice in Iowa

An Iowa school choice bill lets parents use Education Savings Accounts for school expenses like tuition and books


NICK EICHER, HOST: Coming up next on The World and Everything in It: School choice.

Last month, Iowa passed a school choice bill into law. It lets parents use Education Savings Accounts for school expenses like tuition and books. Only six other states have laws like this and WORLD’s Mary Muncy has the story.

MARY MUNCY, REPORTER: Tom DeJong and his family have participated in all kinds of fundraisers for their Christian schools.

DEJONG: I'm married and have five wonderful kids. One in high school, and four in elementary school who all attend private religious schools here in northwest Iowa.

One of the fall fundraisers is covering silage piles for farmers. Silage is like pickled hay. It’s ground up and put into giant piles during harvest time. Then, people put a white tarp over it and weigh it down with tires so the tarp doesn’t blow off.

DEJONG: There certainly are some, especially bad days, or things that you remember about certain silage piles that, hey, let's not do that again.

In Iowa, there’s a program that gathers churches to donate money to Christian schools in the area. So whole congregations will help with fundraisers, including covering the silage piles.

DEJONG: We've had congregation members, you know, in their 70s on the silage pile, sometimes you have to know, tell them, hey, maybe it's maybe it's time to let some of the younger folks just do the work.

But the new Iowa school choice bill is going to give these churches and parents a little cushion.

TAYLOR: I'm Jeff Taylor. I am an Iowa State Senator. I represent district two. And I am also a professor of political science at Dordt University in Sioux Center, Iowa.

Taylor voted for the school choice bill, the Students First Act. It allows parents of children in private schools to apply to use state funds that would normally go to public schools.

This year, each student approved for the program will get a $7,600 Education Savings Account, or ESA. The amount can fluctuate from year to year depending on state funding.

Parents of children in private schools can use the funds for expenses such as tuition, test fees, and school books.

It’s giving parents a bit more control over where their tax money is going.

TAYLOR: The funding follows the child. So there's a certain amount of state aid that goes into public schools for every child that enrolls. If a child isn't there, they're not going to need as much money per pupil.

Some critics worry ESAs could take funding from public schools. But public schools aren’t being cut out entirely.

Public schools will still get money from local property taxes and federal funding and for every student that goes to a private school, the public school in that student’s district gets $1,200.

TAYLOR: I think there's actually a net increase in funding to the public schools as a result of that.

Taylor says this may encourage public schools to get better. If a school isn’t listening to parents, they have the option to put their kids somewhere else.

Others worry that this bill will lead to discrimination because public schools accept everyone while students have to be accepted into private schools.

TAYLOR: So I think that actually is a reasonable objection to this bill. And so several of us on the Education Committee, in a leadership role have talked about this.

This bill also has the potential to increase attendance at private Christian schools.

SOELEN: My name is Tim van Soelen and I serve as the Executive Director for the Center for the Advancement of Education.

Van Soelen is also on the board of the Iowa Association of Christian Schools. He says Christian schools do their best to make education affordable.

SOELEN: But at the end of the day, there's always a real cost for education. These Educational Savings accounts provide families with another way of paying for Christian education.

He says there are more than 150 Christian and Catholic schools in Iowa that serve almost 40,000 students.

Now those schools are getting ready for what could be a flood of new applications.

SOELEN: We're kind of in the starting blocks, but it's going to go fast. So we have to do this really well because we probably won't get another chance to run this one.

Right now, only six other states have ESA programs. Utah just passed its own school choice bill with an ESA program last week. Several other states have vouchers, and more have broad school choice bills.

Here’s DeJong again.

DEJONG: So for more families to have choice in education, as opposed to only the families who have the financial means to have choice in education, again, we believe, is a win for Iowa.

Iowa’s program is being implemented gradually over the next three years. Iowans closest to the poverty line can apply this year once Iowa chooses someone to manage the ESAs.

By 2026, everyone will be able to apply.

Reporting for WORLD, I’m Mary Muncy.

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.


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