By Anne Marie Amacher
The Catholic Messenger
DES MOINES — School administrators and parents gathered to learn about school choice, School Tuition Organization (STO) and legislating on behalf of non-public schools during the Iowa School Choice Summit last month.
Trish Wilger, Iowa Alliance for Choice in Education (Iowa ACE) executive director, said about 100 people from across the state attended the event at the State Historical Museum. Derrell Bradford, executive director of NYCAN (New York Campign for Achievement Now), gave the keynote. NYCAN is a branch of 50CAN, a campaign to advocate for high quality educaton for all kids in all 50 states.
Wilger said Bradford told administrators and parents that they need to tell their story, within their local communities and to their legislators. Lee Morrison, superintendent of Catholic schools for the Diocese of Davenport, said Bradford’s keynote was very important. “We have to tell our personal stories of the successes of our schools.” Morrison noted that Bradford grew up in a rough neighborhood in Baltimore. His third-grade teacher recommended him for a city-wide reading contest. He won first place for his area, but not overall. “Although he was crushed, he said he was invited to attend a private school,” Morrison said. Tuition assistance allowed Bradford to attend and excel at the private school. “He was able to break away and go to college.”
Summit breakout sessions for administrators included navigating the choppy waters of messaging and media relations, and addressing the legislative process with Tom Chapman of the Iowa Catholic Conference and Eric Goranson of Iowa ACE. Parent sessions covered school choice with Wilger and a workshop with Bradford. Other speakers addressed issues related to the Iowa Department of Revenue and data collection for STOs.
Morrison described talks on STOs and Education Savings Accounts as “dynamic.” Because of STOs, enrollment at Catholic schools in the Diocese of Davenport has remained steady. “But there is still an enormous need. Our middle-income families are being squeezed.” He hopes the Iowa Legislature will raise the tax credit cap on STOs so that more families have the opportunity to send their children to Catholic or private schools.
Loren Menke, a school board member of Holy Trinity Catholic Schools in Lee County, said he felt the summit was informative and well presented. He was interested to learn about the positive experience of students, parents, non-public and public schools and communities in states that offer school choice. “School choice in Iowa is a very real possibility,” Menke said.
Brad Box, a longtime Holy Trinity School Board member, said he thought it would be worthwhile to start talking with other school board members to see what “great things are going on at private schools across the state and what it means to have a choice for the education of our kids.”
He said it takes the power of many to make a difference, and Bradford effectively explained what to address when speaking to people about school choice. “I learned that you use your personal stories when trying to persuade people on this topic. (Bradford) touched on several areas of discussion that I would have never done before I listened to this. I left the room with one of the most important lines of the day. ‘We do comparison shopping all of the time.’ This is a great way to look at the education for your children.”
Box noted that “we need to help the people who can help us with our choice for schools. We need to empower those who have the knowledge to take school choice to the people, where it should be. I believe that we can make a difference by showing there is a need out there.”
Linda Duffy, with the Mississippi Valley STO that benefits Scott County Catholic schools, attended a breakout by the Department of Revenue on reporting deadlines and tax credit caps. Hearing from other STO leaders was interesting and informing, she said. Since the STO started, “its impact has been phenomenal, making Catholic schools an option for so many more families,” Duffy said. “Our schools are becoming more inclusive and the enrollment trends tell the story. Assumption (High School in Davenport) alone is up nearly 100 students over the past several years.”
Wilger said all administrators, parents and school choice supporters are invited to Capital Day on April 6, 2017, in Des Moines. “We would like as many people there are they can.”