DES MOINES | Gov. Terry Branstad touted himself as a champion for school choice Wednesday and pledged to try to boost funding next year for a tax credit supporting scholarships for low-income students attending private schools if state finances allow.

“We recognize parental choice has been a driver toward improving student achievement,” Branstad told attendees at a school choice summit sponsored by the Iowa Alliance for Choice in Education.

“I believe that school choice has helped strengthened Iowa’s commitment to offering families more options for their children’s education,” the governor added.

Over the years, Branstad said, he has supported law changes legalizing home education by parents, enabling open enrollment in Iowa’s school system, private school tuition tax credits and textbook and transportation tax breaks for parents sending their children to accredited nonpublic schools, and creating online academies as an option, especially for children with challenges or problems.

Branstad also told the group that funding for tax breaks to private K-12 school donors under the state’s student tuition organization, or STO, tax credit has dramatically increased from $7.5 million in 2010 to $12 million annually now and he would “seriously consider” ACE’s request to boost it to $15 million in the fiscal 2017 state budget.

However, the governor cautioned that he would not know how the state’s budget outlook is shaping up until the Revenue Estimating Conference meets in December. He noted that Iowa’s bird flu outbreak and projections for decreased farm income point to another tight budgeting session next year.

“We will not make promises that we can’t keep but we will try to continue to make progress on this as we have in the last five years,” he said.

The GOP governor’s comments come at a time when public education advocates claim Iowa school children are being short-changed after a contentious 2015 budget session in which the split-control Legislature forged a bipartisan plan to spend an extra $55.7 million in one-time money for K-12 schools which Branstad vetoed.

Legislative Democrats and education groups say Iowa’s per-pupil funding rank is slipping compared to other states and the 1.25 percent increase in supplemental state aid passed last session was inadequate to meet educational needs.

State Auditor Mary Mosiman’s analysis of the fiscal 2016 budget indicated funding for property tax relief topped education in overall spending categories.

Branstad said Wednesday his administration has been “very frugal and careful” in avoiding spending commitments that result in across-the-board cuts if tax collections slip below expectations as has been the case in some previous years.

“I promise that we’re going to have stability and predictability in state funding, that we’re not going to over-promise and that we’re going to deliver what we say we are going to do,” the governor said. “We will seriously consider that (STO tax credit) request, but I would emphasize that we are facing some financial challenges.”

Asked about the prospects for more charter schools in Iowa, Branstad was supportive but not optimistic, noting broad opposition among Iowa’s “public education establishment” which has made it difficult to expand that option. He said a major roadblock is that charter schools have to be approved by local school boards, which are “the least likely” to support the concept.

Reach Rod Boshart at 515-243-7220 or rod.boshart@thegazette.com.

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