Local private schools eye benefits after passage of education savings account legislation | Tri-state News
Leaders of local private schools said new legislation signed by Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds will help them serve more families for whom tuition previously would have posed a barrier.
The Students First Act will give students education savings accounts with an amount equal to the per-pupil funds allocated by the state each year — currently estimated at $7,598 each. That can be used to pay for tuition and other expenses at a state-accredited private school if a student moves from a public school. The law then will give $1,205 to the public school district in which the student lives.
Students already enrolled in private schools also can qualify for education savings accounts in the first year of the program if their household income is less than 300% of the federal poverty level, which is about $83,000 for a family of four.
Funds will be available to every Iowa family by the third year of the program.
“Allowing families the opportunity to send their children to any school that best fits their kids’ needs was the goal, and … I think this is really a win for Iowa families,” said Geoffrey Kaiser, principal of Marquette Catholic Schools in Bellevue.
During the debate over the bill, Democratic legislators and other opponents of the plan countered that lawmakers have for years provided inadequate support for public school districts, forcing them to repeatedly cut their budgets. They said the new plan would worsen that funding problem, especially hurting the state’s largest urban districts and some of its smallest rural districts.
Local private schools reported varying percentages of their current students who immediately would be eligible for such funds, with officials saying they only can estimate eligibility for families who apply for current tuition assistance programs.
Holy Family Catholic Schools Chief Administrator Phil Bormann said 359 current students would qualify for the funds immediately, about one-quarter of the system’s total enrollment in kindergarten to 12th grade.
“For those families, (this legislation) gives the assurance that their kid can continue in our system,” he said. “Historically, for many families, they would make a decision based on if tuition assistance would be there.”
All incoming kindergartners also immediately are eligible for funds, including Melissa Marisie’s son, who will attend kindergarten at Resurrection Elementary School in Dubuque in the fall.
Marisie works part time, and her husband is a full-time college student. She said the education savings account will have “a huge impact” on their ability to enroll their son in a private school, which is important to them both for the religious aspect and the quality of education.
“For the first year, it seemed easy, but for the rest of his education career, it does all add up,” she said of the cost. “…We’re grateful to Gov. Reynolds.”
Beckman Catholic High School Principal Marcel Kielkucki said 20% to 25% of the Dyersville school’s current enrollment — which equates to 75 to 85 students — would qualify for the funds in the first year.
Of the 145 students who attend Tri-State Christian School in Asbury, 66 would qualify for education savings account funds in the first year, said Principal Amy Rush. That equates to more than 45%.
She said the program will provide a significant boost for the school, which is not affiliated with a church and relies on fundraising and individual donors to provide tuition assistance.
“Being able to have families who can pay full tuition will enable us to keep strengthening our existing programs and adding programs,” she said. “We want to be more competitive with our teacher salaries.”
Peter Smith, principal of St. Francis Xavier Elementary in Dyersville, also hopes the law will help his school increase staff compensation.
“The additional funding can help us continue to serve our students in a strong way,” he said.
He said 30 to 35 current students, about 12% of the school’s total enrollment, would qualify immediately for education savings account funds.
room for growth
Officials at most local private schools said they will have room for more students, depending on their grade levels and how many enroll.
“We’re still in the process of looking at exactly what that magical number (of students) might be, but we are preparing for any new families,” said Laura Herbers, principal of Aquin Catholic School in Cascade.
Brenda Lansing, principal of La Salle Catholic School in Holy Cross, said the school currently has about 70 students and has grown for several years.
“We welcome the growth,” she said. “We’re excited to still have Catholic education in this community, where it’s been long-existing … and this (legislation) opens a ton of doors for families to really look at La Salle that couldn’t afford it before.”
Bormann said Mazzuchelli Catholic Middle School and Wahlert Catholic High School could add students without the need to hire “many” additional staff, but Holy Family’s elementary schools are currently at or slightly over capacity for multiple grade levels.
The system closed Holy Ghost Elementary School and the English-based program at St. Anthony Elementary School at the end of the 2019-2020 year. Our Lady of Guadalupe Spanish Immersion School moved from the St. Anthony campus to the Holy Family Central Campus in 2021.
“If we have a significant level of interest, we will have to take a step back and make sure we are able to accommodate that both in our facilities and our staffing,” Bormann said.
Public school impact
Dubuque Community Schools Superintendent Amy Hawkins and Chief Financial Officer Kevin Kelleher said they have no way of knowing how many students might leave the district and the financial impact of that, but proposed increases in state per-pupil funding already fall well below the district’s projected increased costs.
“We have a lot of families that choose us right now because of all the great things that are going on in this district, from programming to services, and we’ll continue to do those things as long as we can,” Hawkins said. “The state supplemental aid is really where our focus is right now.”
Kelleher said that based on required staff salary increases through collective bargaining and cost increases due to inflation, the district’s expenses could rise by $3.9 million over the next year. However, he said the Iowa Senate has proposed a 2% increase in state supplemental aid, which would give the district only $840,000 of additional money.
The Students First Act means the district could see additional funding losses as students leave, without a notable decrease in operational costs.
“Let’s say we lose 100 students from our district due to vouchers, so that’s $760,000,” Kelleher said. “…That’s five to six students per building…so it changes nothing on the operations side. We’re not going to decrease teachers for that building. We’re not going to reduce the services provided in that building. Utilities are still going to be on, but we’re losing the funding associated with those students.”
He said there are limited ways in which the district can spend the $1,205 received for each pupil leaving the district, though he said state officials have not yet set those requirements.
Dubuque resident Tara Dunn and her husband, Michael, have a son in second grade at Bryant Elementary School and a daughter who will begin preschool in the fall. The family regularly donates to the Foundation for Dubuque Public Schools and plans to increase the contribution this year in response to the new law.
“(Public schools) serve all Iowan children, and they’re required to meet the students’ needs,” Dunn said. “When their budget decreases, they have to try to still meet those needs with fewer resources, which becomes difficult or sometimes impossible.”
Holy Family sets its base tuition at different levels for students whose families belong to a Catholic parish that supports the system, those who belong to a nonsupporting Catholic parish and those who are not Catholic.
The $7,598 per year in education savings account funds would more than cover annual tuition for any Holy Family elementary, middle or high school student, with the exception of non-Catholic high-schoolers, who will pay $7,990 to attend Wahlert in the 2023-2024 school year.
Bormann, along with other private school leaders, noted that tuition is lower than the system’s cost to educate a student, which is offset by parish contributions and private donations. Tuition assistance is available through scholarships, grants and school tuition organization funds.
The law states that education savings account money must be spent on private school tuition or other expenses such as tutoring, textbooks, school fees, payments for “educational therapies,” state-approved vocational and life-skills classes, services for students with disabilities, standardized testing fees and advanced placement exams. It cannot be spent on food, clothing, transportation or disposable supplies such as pencils and paper.
Money in a pupil’s individual education savings account at the end of a fiscal year will remain in that account to be used for qualified expenses in future years, until the student graduates from high school or turns 20, when the money will be deposited into the state’s general fund.
Now that the bill has been signed into law, the state will adopt administrative rules for its implementation. The Administrative Rules Review Committee, which includes Sen. Pam Jochum, D-Dubuque, and Sen. Mike Klimesh, R-Spillville, will have legislative oversight of that rulemaking process.
“The bill is the frame of the house that’s got the roof and windows in it, and the rulemaking that the state does now will provide the rest of the pieces so it can be functional,” Kielkucki said. “That will give us a clearer picture of how families apply and how those processes will work.”