MASON CITY | A growing faith-based K-12 school in Mason City says a implementation of a state school choice program would allow it to expand its top-level educational program.
North Iowa Christian School has about 60 students this year, and would likely have more if tuition wasn't a setback for some families, said Steve VandenBerg, who handles public relations for the school, which was founded in the mid-1980s in Clear Lake before moving to Mason City in 2003.
The school this fall settled into a new location, 680 Sixth St. S.E., with room to grow. VandenBerg said North Iowa Christian plans to start a capital campaign within the next month to add extra classrooms and a gym.
"In our relatively small school, a voucher system would certainly help us grow and be able to provide high-level education with a Christian worldview," VandenBerg said. "This would be a great opportunities for students and families to make their own choices for how their education comes about or where to go (to school)."
Republicans, who hold the majority at the state Capitol through at least 2018, have said they'd like to approve a school choice program next legislative session. School choice programs allow parents to use taxpayer money to put their children in non-public schools.
Tuition at North Iowa Christian School this academic year is $2,189 for kindergarten, $3,502 for grades 1-8 and $3,685 for high school, according to the school's website. Discounts are offered for additional children, with family tuition capped at $9,452.
"We do have financial aid that helps a number of students and families, we're able to help that way, but we have limited funds," VandenBerg said.
VandenBerg said North Iowa Christian distributes about $35,000 in aid each year, mostly through a School Tuition Organization, which the state Department of Education defines as a "charitable organization that raises tuition grant funding for eligible students who enroll in accredited nonpublic schools in Iowa."
Those grants are then given to eligible students — whose families' income is no more than 300 percent of federal poverty guidelines — to be used at a qualified private or parochial school of their parents' choice.
VandenBerg said North Iowa Christian works with Newman Catholic and Mason City Schools. "We all have something to offer," he said.
Rep. Sharon Steckman, a former Mason City elementary teacher and Title I reading specialist, said she believes implementing a voucher system would "really hurt our rural school districts."
"I think the kids should have school choice, but not with money taken away from public education," said Steckman, D-Mason City, a ranking member on the Iowa House Education Committee.
"Iowa has always prided itself on strong public schools," said Steckman, as she called public education "the great equalizer."
"This would not be helpful."
Steckman said she thought vouchers or educational savings accounts would equate to choosing winners and losers and would be "very expensive." Under ESAs, parents would use a government-authorized savings account for taxpayer funding, which could be used for tuition at a parochial or private school, homeschooling costs or private tutoring.
Tony Adams, K-12 administrator for Newman Catholic Schools, said ESAs would "help families and students best use tax funds."
"I think choice is always good, and the choice of how to best use our own money is a good option," Adams said.
Tuition at Newman this academic year ranges from $2,995 to $4,405 for grades K-8 and $3,765 to $5,125 for high school, depending if students are in-parish or out of parish, according to the school's website. Discounts are also offered for additional children.
Adams said the amount of aid varies from student to student and is based on need. "We do give out a substantial account," he said of the school, which has 526 students this academic year.
Newman's website says its families have received more than $300,000 in STO scholarships and over $45,000 in local scholarships.
Rep. Tedd Gassman, R-Scarville, said he'd like the Legislature to move forward with ESAs, but noted there are caveats.
"It will cost significant dollars to do that, and we can't right now," said Gassman, who is a member of the Iowa House Education Committee. "It will have a cost — some say it won't, and I don't know where they get that idea."
Much like open enrollment, Gassman said he didn't think school choice would affect rural North Iowa schools.
"The little schools will hold their own," he said. "There are a lot of good rural schools in my district. Two are working on consolidating, which is a good thing."
The state would ideally offer opportunities for school choice, Speaker of the House Linda Upmeyer said, but she noted she doesn't foresee that happening immediately.
"I don't see a path to do it right now, with the state budget what it is," said Upmeyer, R-Clear Lake. "That would be a little ways away."
Upmeyer said she thought "much conversation will need to take place" before school choice moves forward in Iowa.