By Anne Marie Cox
Special to The Witness
DES MOINES — School choice advocates are going into the 2016 Iowa legislative session seeking education savings accounts and a $3 million increase for a tax credit program that provides scholarships for families that want to send their children to nonpublic schools.
Gov. Terry Branstad was cautiously optimistic at a school choice education summit in Des Moines on Sept. 16.
“We will work with you and we will seriously look at it when it comes time to put our budget together,” he told parents, principals and administrators.
Among the attendees at the recent summit were Kim Hermsen, superintendent of schools for the Archdiocese of Dubuque and Jeff Henderson, former schools superintendent who now serves as development director for the archdiocese.
The battle to get the savings accounts, known as ESAs, and an increase in the School Tuition Organization program will be difficult for two reasons, said Tom Chapman, executive director of the Iowa Catholic Conference.
One reason is the political divide. Last legislative session, with the state’s House of Representatives controlled by Republicans and the state Senate controlled by Democrats, not much public policy was accomplished other than approving the annual state budget.
A second reason is that it may be hard to promote school choice options for nonpublic schools when state leaders disagree about funding public schools, said Chapman. After the last legislative session, the governor stripped from the state’s budget a one-time funding mechanism that had been agreed upon by both the House and the Senate.
Gov. Branstad told those at the gathering that he sent his children to a Catholic school, has grandchildren in a Catholic school and has a daughter who is a teacher, so he understands the importance of school choice. At the same time, though, he needs to look at the whole budget picture for the state when the December revenue estimate is released and stick by his promise of stability and predictability with the budget. Currently, Iowa has financial issues stemming from the avian bird flu and the price of corn, which is “well below” the cost of production, he said.
“We will not make promises we can’t keep but we will continue to try to make progress,” said Branstad.
Advocates will ask the state legislature in 2016 for ESAs, which are state-funded savings accounts for every child in Iowa, to be used for educational options of the parents’ choice including tuition at nonpublic schools.
Last legislative session several ESA bills were introduced. One made it out of subcommittee but didn’t advance beyond that.
“Our common goal is to help parents get the support they need to choose the kind of education that’s best suited for their child,” said Chapman.
School choice advocates also plan to ask the state legislature for a $3 million increase in the School Tuition Organization funding, currently capped at $12 million. Through the program, individuals can get a tax credit on their income taxes for making a gift to an STO, which uses the funds to distribute as scholarships to low-income families for accredited nonpublic schools in Iowa.
The School Tuition Organization legislation passed in 2006 and began with a $2.5 million tax credit cap available for the second half of that year. Funding started to go out in tuition grants in 2007. The program now raises $12 million annually and distributes scholarships to more than 10,000 nonpublic school students throughout the state each year. It’s an important opportunity for donors while helping others, Chapman said.
“How many of those students would be able to afford a nonpublic school if they didn’t have that assistance?” asked Chapman. “To me, that’s just an awesome program and it’s had good bipartisan support over the years.”
Eric Goranson, of the Iowa Association of Christian Schools, is optimistic, saying his group will work tirelessly and aggressively.
“We can’t do it without our schools and parents,” he added. Grassroots support is critical, along with support of the governor and bipartisan support of legislators.
The Iowa Alliance for Choice in Education organized and sponsored the summit. School choice advocates from the Iowa Association for Christian Schools and the Iowa Catholic Conference attended, along with many representatives of Catholic and other nonpublic schools in the state.
This story is provided courtesy of The Witness, the official publication of the Archdiocese of Dubuque.