Private school tuition applications double expectations

DES MOINES — Applications for the state’s new private-tuition voucher program are double what lawmakers anticipated.

Critics of the plan say it will divert even more money than they anticipated away from Iowa’s traditional public-school students.

When lawmakers legalized Iowa’s Education Savings Accounts, they anticipated about 14,000 families would apply for the scholarship, which makes more than $7,600 available for parents to pay for private school tuition.

Instead, that number is at 29,000 and growing.

Melissa Peterson – legislative and policy director with the Iowa State Education Association – said the funding will come at the expense of the state’s public K-12 classrooms, where most kids still attend school.

“So, even though there have been 29,000 applications for the vouchers in the first year of the program, that still means that more than 90% of Iowa families are choosing public schools,” said Peterson. “Resource investment should be made where it’s going to do the most good.”

The bill’s Republican backers have argued the state partially reimburses school districts for students who choose an ESA and will at least partially offset any lost revenue.

Iowa is one of eleven states that have a private school voucher program in place.

Iowa initially projected the ESA vouchers would cost the state about $107 million, but could cost double that amount now given twice the number of applications.

And when they crafted the bill, lawmakers did not put a limit on the amount the state could spend to fund them.

Peterson said given the lack of a funding cap, the voucher program could eventually exceed $1 billion, meaning less money for critical public-school priorities.

“Money that could have gone into enhancing programs, reducing class sizes, helping us continue to retain and attract education professionals in our public schools,” said Peterson, “that those resources are going elsewhere now to subsidize attendance at non-public schools.”

According to the governor’s office, 19% of applicants who have been approved for an ESA voucher report annual income of more than $90,000 for a family of four.