By Anne Marie Amacher
The Catholic Messenger
Advocates for school choice are hopeful about their prospects in the 2023 Iowa General Assembly. Trish Wilger, executive director of Iowa Alliance for Choice in Education and Iowa Advocates for Choice in Education, believes Gov. Kim Reynolds’ support and the composition of the newly elected legislature bode well for passage of an Education Savings Account bill.
Iowa Advocates for Choice in Education, the Iowa Catholic Conference and Iowa Association of Christian Schools sponsored educational choice summits in November to provide information and to discuss parent choice in education, she said. Currently, Iowa families who wish to send their children to private schools may be eligible for School Tuition Organization (STO) funding, Wilger said.
STOs help fund students’ tuition for accredited nonpublic schools in Iowa through charitable donations that lower tuition costs for qualifying families who might not otherwise be able to send their children to a nonpublic school. At present, the STO program allows a 75% tax credit and a cap statewide of $20 million. The program began in 2006 with a 65% tax credit and a cap of $2.5 million. The tax credit remained at 65 percent but the cap has continued to grow. Iowa has 11 STOs, two of which are in the Diocese of Davenport.
The STO of Southeast Iowa includes the Catholic schools of Holy Trinity-Fort Madison/West Point, Notre Dame-Burlington, Prince of Peace-Clinton, Regina-Iowa City, Seton-Ottumwa, St. James-Washington, St. Joseph-DeWitt, Saints Mary and Mathias-Muscatine and St. Vincent-Keokuk. The Mississippi Valley STO includes the Catholic schools of All Saints, Assumption High, John F. Kennedy and St. Paul the Apostle in Davenport and Lourdes in Bettendorf, along with Rivermont Collegiate, a private school in Bettendorf. The STOs have not reached their maximum cap for 2022 and are accepting donations to provide scholarships for the 2023-24 school year. Donors can receive up to a 75% tax credit for their donation to the STO of their choice. Another option for students’ families to consider is the Tuition and Textbook Credit of up to $500 per child, Wilger said.
The proposed Education Savings Accounts (ESA), also known as Students First scholarships, moved forward in the Iowa Legislature earlier this year, but the bill did not pass. ESAs would allow a portion of state aid to be placed into a savings account that parents can use for qualified education expenses for their children. Opponents of the proposal say it takes funding away from public schools.
If ESA becomes law, it would not fund the needs of every family choosing to send their children to a nonpublic school. Wilger believes the ESA and STO complement each other. “If both programs exist, more funding will be available to help the neediest students and to help where gaps exist between tuition and the parents’ ability to pay, especially at the high school level.”
Passage of ESA legislation this year could result in program implementation as early as the 2023-2024 school year, Wilger said. She encourages ESA supporters to visit www.iowaace.org to sign up for news updates and legislative alerts. The site helps familiarize people about ESAs and alerts them to legislative progress. “Legislators are home on the weekends and often hold public forums — we’d like to encourage people to attend these events and speak up in favor of school choice initiatives,” she said.