DES MOINES – Expanding school choice for parents who want options to public schools has gained momentum, the chairman of the Iowa House Education Committee said Wednesday while attending a United for School Choice rally in Des Moines.

However, Rep. Walt Rogers, R-Cedar Falls, and Gov. Terry Branstad cautioned it will be difficult to expand those options for the nearly 33,000 students in nonpublic K-12 education this year if there is a cost to the state. That doesn’t include home-schooled students, many who are not subject to reporting requirements.

“We’re looking at all options from a pilot to full implementation,” Rogers said. A pilot project would be relatively inexpensive, “but full implementation would be quite costly.”

Branstad has recommended a 2 percent increase in supplemental state aid to schools – about $70 million next year – and protected K-12 funding from $117 million in mid-year budget cuts expected to be approved by lawmakers in the coming days.

Rogers described his school choice legislation as being in “formation, pre-drafting,” but it could include state-funded education savings accounts, in which state dollars are earmarked for parents to use toward education costs like private-school tuition. Sen. Brad Zaun, R-Urbandale, has proposed an educational savings account bill, and Rep. John Wills, R-Spirit Lake, has proposed school vouchers but only in cases of students attending “persistently lowest-achieving schools.”

That’s what Leah Davenport of Ankeny would like to see. A board member at Ankeny Christian Academy where four of her five sons attends school, Davenport would like the Legislature to approve legislation that would allow her family to set aside money to pay tuition at the private school.

“I hope to see continued opportunities for school choice,” she said at the rally.

Student tuition organizations, which give people a tax credit for contributing to funds that provide grants to private school students, have been wonderful, Davenport said. But educational savings accounts would give her family another option, she said, for putting money into the children’s education.

Drew Klein of Americans for Prosperity said ESAs would allow parents, not politicians, to decide how education dollars would be spent. The funds directly allocated to families for their children’s educational needs could be spent on online programs, tutors and textbooks, for example.

So far, vouchers, or state-funded scholarships that pay for students to attend private schools, aren’t a part of the conversation, according to House Speaker Linda Upmeyer, R-Clear Lake.

“I don’t hear that word, so that’s not what members are talking about,” she said.

Democrats and public school advocates have opposed such programs because typically they result in less state funding for public school districts.

Supporters of educational savings account say they give families the freedom to determine which school is best for their children.


Statehouse reporter for The Courier

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