By JOANNE FOX
DES MOINES – Hundreds of advocates for school choice converged April 6 at the state capitol in Des Moines to express their support for tuition assistance programs.
The “School Choice Rally” – an aspect of Education Celebration 2017 – was coordinated by the Iowa Alliance for Choice in Education (ACE) and the Iowa Advocates for Choice in Education.
“Families should have the freedom to choose an educational environment which enhances each student’s unique ability to learn,” said Iowa ACE Executive Director Trish Wilger. “School choice removes barriers, such as address and income, allowing parents to choose the education that best fits their child.”
Students, parents, administrators, faculty, school board members and supporters of the School Tuition Organization (STO) tax credit and Education Savings Account (ESA) programs met with legislators to advocate for expanding educational choice throughout Iowa.
“We had about 800 to 900 attendees, with schools from all across Iowa,” Wilger said. “That’s probably the widest reach we’ve ever had.”
Patricia Lansink, principal of St. Rose of Lima School, Denison, was impressed with those numbers.
“It seemed like there was also a good number of students visiting that day,” she said. “I was surprised at the number of Christian schools that were also there that day.”
The expansion of school choice programs in Iowa, such as STOs and ESAs, could come under consideration during the remainder of the 2017 legislative session, Wilger pointed out.
Students who attend Sioux City diocesan schools – and meet state guidelines – may receive assistance through the Msgr. Lafferty Tuition Foundation, an STO, enacted in 2006. The entity provides a substantial tax credit for those with Iowa tax liability to help offset the cost of non-public education.
Le Mars Gehlen Catholic PreK-6 principal Lorie Nussbaum, as well as parent Kara Hitchler and her two daughters, participated in the rally. The group spoke to Sen. Bill Anderson, R-Pierson and Rep. Charles Holz, R-Le Mars about STOs and ESAs.
Although Kara Hitchler and her husband James are graduates of public schools, Kara told the legislators, “We are lucky to have two great school systems in our town,” referring to Le Mars Community and Gehlen Catholic.
“By providing each child the education which best meets their needs, students are better equipped for success, resulting in a well-qualified Iowa work force,” she said.
Iowa ACE Board member and Gehlen Catholic Development Director Lisa Niebuhr acknowledged STOs provide substantial assistance for families.
“However, the ESAs allow money to be used for a wider variety of approved educational expenses such as private school tuition, textbooks, tutoring, therapies for special needs and online learning,” she said. “Any funds not used by graduation could be used for tuition at an Iowa college or university.”
Wilger noted surveys indicate a substantial, bipartisan support for ESAs.
“A new statewide poll shows a whopping 70 percent of Iowans indicated support for the creation of an ESA,” she said.
Lansink encouraged taxpayers to continue talking to elected officials, asking them to support the ESA legislation.
“If they don’t, then they need to vote in someone who will,” she emphasized.