DES MOINES, Iowa – Hundreds of school choice advocates and private school students, staff, and parents flooded into the Iowa State Capitol rotunda to rally for greater parental choice in education.
“Iowa has a lot of great K 12 options including public, public, charter, private, virtual and homeschooling. Parents need to be able to afford those options and freely choose from them. And not just parents who can afford private school tuition or are able to move to a neighborhood because they want to be in that school district. We’re talking about all parents. We’re talking about all options here today,” Trish Wilger, executive director of Iowa Advocates for Choice in Education, the organization hosting the “Education Celebration,” said, opening the program.
The program also featured “the School Choice Boyz,” two men – Walter Blanks Jr. and Nathan Cunneen – who are products of school choice programs in Ohio and Florida. They travel to different events nationwide, advocating for school choice on behalf of the American Federation for Children.
“I was surrounded by poverty, crime, and low expectations. I was in a different public school almost every single year. Sometimes I transferred in the middle of the year. And none of them seem to be a good fit for me,” Blanks, who grew up in Columbus, Ohio, explained.
He said he was the target of bullies in every school he attended because of his Christian faith and love of superheroes, two features that earned him the label of “Bible freak” and “geek.” After being beaten up in his last public school, his mother placed him in a private school after receiving an unsatisfactory response from his principal.
“I went on, because of school choice in Ohio, ending up in a small, private school where my educational journey flourished. I began to love learning. I did a lot of different things. I was exposed to so many things,” Blanks said.
Cunneen was a school choice beneficiary in Florida.
He attended a Christian school through 8th grade but wanted to go to public school to play football in high school.
“So my parents finally let me give up my school choice scholarship to go to a public school. And immediately upon getting there, I realized very quickly that I had made a terrible decision. Our public school was one of the highest-rated schools in our area. It just did not work for me. I felt lost in the giant sea of students. I struggled emotionally, academically, morally and ultimately begged my parents to let me return to a small, private school, again, with the assistance of the school choice scholarship,” Cunneen said.
“So one of the things that I say often is that school choice saved me twice. But for millions of students and 1000s of students right here in Iowa, they never even have that opportunity once,” he added.
During the program, Alana Gentosi, a parent with students at Des Moines Christian School, explained that she and her husband had found a way to send their kids to private school. She teaches part-time at Des Moines Christian School, and her husband, Michael, works extra shifts, so they pay tuition.
“We’ve been able to make it work. And this is a priority to us. So we’re going to continue this. But here’s our real hope: our hope that this will continue for our children, but we also want this opportunity to be extended to families out there who want and desire school choice for their kids, who have not had the resources or the income to do so. That is our hope,” she said.
“We are living in a day and age and a culture where I truly believe parent choice and education is absolutely of utmost importance. It is vital, and it is necessary to all of you here and to our kids and to other students,” Gentosi concluded.
Two state lawmakers also spoke during the program.
State Rep. Skyler Wheeler, R-Orange City, said school choice is one of the most important issues that the legislature has considered.
“The state of Iowa, right now, is looking at a bill that would empower parents in education. It’s probably the closest this has come to becoming law, and we have a vested interest to make it happen. Parents know what’s best for their kids. They know what’s best for you guys, and we should empower them to make that decision,” he said.
State Senator Jesse Green, R-Boone, also said investing in parents is vital.
“I farm. I raise corn, beans, and hay. If I told you that I just invested in one thing, you would think I was crazy. But here in the state of Iowa, we just keep investing in a one-size-fits-all system. We need to invest in all of education. But most importantly, we need to invest in you and let you make the decision,” he said.
During the program, down the hall in the former Supreme Court chambers, an Iowa House appropriations subcommittee held a hearing on HSB 672, a bill introduced by Gov. Kim Reynolds to create an Education Savings Accounts program called Student First Scholarships.
Under the bill, the program would be implemented during the 2022-2023 school year. Scholarships would be worth 70 percent of the state’s per-pupil spending, currently $5,359, for qualified education expenses. A student must be enrolled in a public school for the 2021-22 school year and have a household income that does not exceed 400 percent of the federal poverty level or have an individualized educational plan to be eligible. In addition, the legislation caps the scholarships in the first year at 10,000 students.
The remaining 30 percent will be reallocated to smaller school districts with 500 or fewer students.
The subcommittee approved the bill 2 to 1 to advance it to the full Iowa House Appropriations Committee. The Iowa Senate is poised to debate their companion bill on the Senate floor.
Public school advocates have opposed this bill, but on Tuesday, State Rep. John Wills, R-Spirit Lake, who chaired the subcommittee, told The Iowa Torch supporters of the bill showed up.
“It was a great day with more people speaking out for ESAs than who spoke against them. Also, the people eho spoke out against ESAs tended to be agency people,” he said. “we need to fund kids, not institutions.”
Cunneen, after the program, praised lawmakers’ efforts to advance school choice in this session.
“Governor Reynolds is making a strong stand for students by championing this legislation, which will give thousands more in Iowa the same opportunity we had, access to an education that fit our individual needs,” he told The Iowa Torch.
State Rep. Steven Holt, R-Denison, was also on the subcommittee and approved the bill.
State Rep. Tracy Ehlert, D-Cedar Rapids, voted against the bill.
“I am absolutely supportive of school choice. Families need to do what is in the best interest of their children. A number of supporters of this bill asked for school choice, we already have school choice in Iowa. This bill has multiple divisions one of which would include funding non-public education institutions,” she told The Iowa Torch.
“Those non-public education institutions do not have to meet the same set of standards as our public education does. That’s where my biggest issue lies. If we are going to use public school funding for private schools they need to meet the same set of standards,” Ehlert added.
Photo Credit: Iowa Association of Christian Schools