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As school choice movement grows, so does debate over cost

Should the state should aid private schools?

Feb 14, 2018 at 8:18 am
    Landyn Mitvalsky (left), a sixth-grader, and his classmates pretend to be water molecules during their science class at Summit Schools in Cedar Rapids on Monday, Jan. 22, 2018. The school is a private secular school located in the northeast part of the city. Mitvalsky's mother enrolled him in the school after the district closed the public school he attended. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)

    Cassie Mitvalsky never thought she would enroll one of her children in private school.

    “Never in a million years,” she said. “I’m a social worker, so I believe in how important public schools are.”

    But when the Cedar Rapids mother found herself at odds with her son’s school district, educating her son elsewhere started to sound worthwhile.

    Mitvalsky was one of dozens of parents who pleaded with board members to keep Polk Elementary School open in 2012, calling it a vital piece of a downtown neighborhood that is more racially and economically diverse than many other Cedar Rapids areas.

    In the end, it didn’t matter. The board’s decision to shutter the school left Mitvalsky feeling inconsequential in the district of about 16,000 students.


    It eventually led her to leave public education altogether, making her family one of thousands in Iowa who have opted out of the state’s public schools.

    “The first thought that I had was, maybe this is too big,” Mitvalsky said. “This entire district is too big that it’s not able to focus on each student, each family, like they say. Because any time they try to enact change, it’s like turning a submarine on a dime.”

    At first, Mitvalsky’s son Landyn transferred to another elementary school in the district. But the culture of the school wasn’t like it had been at Polk — and when Mitvalsky asked to transfer him to a different school, she was told the only other option was a low-performing elementary school.

    “I feel like I explored at least three options trying to stay in the public school system, and I was met with a wall,” Mitvalsky recalled.

    When she enrolled Landyn, 11, in a private school, he became one of about 46,000 students in Iowa who do not attend a public school.

    Most students in Iowa who don’t attend their public neighborhood schools attend parochial schools, non-denominational private schools or home schools.

    Students in need of different, but still public, schools often enroll in schools outside their district through open enrollment. Some open-enroll into one of two virtual schools that receive state dollars.

    In Cedar Rapids alone, more than 1,200 students opt out of attending their neighborhood schools.

    Mitvalsky considered transferring her son to a school in Marion, about five miles away, but worried about the commute. She didn’t want to enroll her son in a religious school, and eventually decided to send him to Summit Schools, a non-denominational school in Cedar Rapids with fewer than 200 students in kindergarten through eighth grade.

    As with most private schools, it came with tuition costs — an item Mitvalsky hadn’t needed to budget for when Landyn went to a public school.


    Some of the costs of private schools in Iowa are offset with public dollars, a practice that has become more frequent as a “school choice” movement has gained momentum throughout the country over the past 25 years.

    School choice policies typically aim to give parents the financial means to access “a new choice” for their children, often a private education, said Adam Peshek, the managing director of opportunity policy for the Foundation for Excellence in Education.

    The foundation — based in Tallahassee, Fla., and fathered by former Gov. Jeb Bush — is a nonprofit that advocates for state education reform.

    But even the terms used to refer to policies such as educational vouchers or tuition tax credits are irksome to public education advocates.

    “In my mind, we should be calling this issue for what it is, and that is subsidizing private and religious education with taxpayer dollars,” said Mike Owen, the executive director of the Iowa Policy Project based in West Branch. “Some people think that’s great, and that’s fine. But it’s not about ‘choice’ of schools. People have that. The question is, who’s going to pay?”

    Republican legislators in the Iowa Statehouse have hinted at expanding school choice in the state.

    Private school advocates, such as Iowa Catholic Conference Executive Director Tom Chapman, said in January that legislators have showed “general support” for a voucher or educational savings account program, both of which allow parents to redirect state aid for public schools to their child’s private school or other educational services.

    “In my mind, we should be calling this issue for what it is, and that is subsidizing private and religious education with taxpayer dollars. Some people think that’s great, and that’s fine. But it’s not about ‘choice’ of schools. People have that. The question is, who’s going to pay?”

    - Mike Owen

    Executive Director, Iowa Policy Project


    If a program makes headway this legislative session, Iowa will be somewhat behind the curve.

    “When you step back and look at what are the big states people are watching in terms of school choice, I don’t think Iowa’s on that map,” Peshek said.

    Iowa was, however, an early adopter of K-12 tuition tax credits.

    “Iowa has had what I would call a school choice program since 2006,” Peshek said. “They started out down the path when a lot of states were looking at it for the first time.”

    Capped at $12 million, the tax credit contributes to other public dollars that are filtered into Iowa’s private schools. The state sent as much as $42 million to private education providers in fiscal year 2017, according to the state’s Legislative Services Agency.

    That amount includes several reimbursements — for transportation services, textbooks, share-time students, services from area education agencies and school lunches — as well as the tuition tax credit and a tax credit for tuition and textbook costs.

    If those estimates include funds for the Statewide Voluntary Preschool Program, that amount rises to about $52 million — a number many public education advocates and Democrats say is more than enough public funding for non-public schools.

    Public school students also can take advantage of the Tuition and Textbook Tax Credit, which cost the state $15.4 million in fiscal year 2017. So it’s difficult to say how many of those dollars supported private education.



    The School Tuition Organization Tax Credit, though, exclusively benefits private school students.

    At Xavier High School in Cedar Rapids, the second-largest private school in the state, about 90 families receive tuition assistance from a School Tuition Organization. Grants range from $500 to $5,700 per family, many of whom have more than one child enrolled in the Catholic school system, Xavier spokesman Nick Ireland said.

    In some ways, the tax credit’s cap — which has been reached the past two years — keeps it from costing as much as other states’ programs.

    “That’s pretty low for tax credit programs,” the Foundation for Excellence in Education’s Peshek said, noting the cap limits the number of students who can receive grants and keeps the value of grants down. “In Illinois, they passed a tax credit scholarship program that, in its initial year, is capped at $75 million. That’s clearly a much larger amount of money, but then it’s also much higher amounts of money per student.”

    “It’s a really important program that allows these families to have a choice that, more than likely, they probably wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford. Especially when you get families that have multiple students in schools.”

    - Cheryl Minor

    Treasurer, Heart of Iowa School Tuition Organization


    In Iowa, the credits are given to taxpayers who donate to one of 12 School Tuition Organizations, which are classified as nonprofits. The credits are worth 65 percent of a donation, so someone who donates $1,000, for example, would later receive a tax credit of $650, taking a net “loss” of $350 for the donation.

    The organizations then distribute donations among the state’s accredited private schools, awarding tuition grants to students living at or below 300 percent of the federal poverty line.

    That’s on the higher end of income requirements set for tuition grants across the country, Peshek noted. For a family of four, it’s a household income of about $74,000.

    “It’s a really important program that allows these families to have a choice that, more than likely, they probably wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford,” said Cheryl Minor, the treasurer of the Heart of Iowa School Tuition Organization. “Especially when you get families that have multiple students in schools.”

    Most, if not all, families who qualify for a tuition grant typically receive one, Minor said. The number of students who apply for a grant tends to influence the awards’ values, she said.

    “Rarely, if ever, is it (covering) full tuition,” she added. “It’s usually just a portion — most of the schools want the families to have some skin in the game.”

    Grants only can be awarded to students attending accredited private schools, Minor said, and the organizations submit public 990 tax forms and also are reviewed annually by independent certified public accountants and state agents.

    But with private education advocates pushing this legislative session for an increase to the program’s $12 million cap, some have raised concerns about the program overall. Iowa’s return on investment in the credit is “dubious at best,” said the Iowa Policy Project’s Owen.

    “It is something that, as with many tax credits, they go on autopilot and they don’t really have to re-justify themselves,” Owen said. “Very few tax credits have a sunset provision that requires that they will expire after a certain number of years, and to continue the Legislature would have to review it.”

    He compared the 65 percent tax credit with a donor requiring taxpayers to match his or her donation at a nearly two-to-one rate.

    “There’s nothing to stop people who have means from contributing to scholarship funds,” Owen said. “But on top of that, they want a tax break from it. Nobody is saying, ‘Keep these kids out of these schools.’ The question is, is the taxpayer responsible for keeping those scholarships available?”

    But Peshek said more money for programs — such as tuition grants, educational savings accounts and vouchers — can ensure “kids are given enough money they actually have a choice.”

    Increasing the number of education savings account, voucher and other “choice” programs in the United States has been a priority of President Donald Trump’s Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos.

    Giving a family $1,000 or $2,000 through those programs, Peshek said, often is not enough for low-income and other disadvantaged families to have real access to private education.


    The relatively small amount of money has helped Mitvalsky afford Landyn’s new private school, where tuition is about $8,000 a year.

    The tuition grant shaved off some of the Summit Schools cost, but the family still had to cut household expenses to find the funds for tuition. Landyn takes his lunch to school nearly every day, Mitvalsky said, to save money. There have been more family dinners at home instead of restaurants, too.

    “We’re not any different than any family that’s saving for something,” said Mitvalsky, who has three other children. “I don’t get to get coffee at Starbucks — ever — but you have to prioritize what’s important.”

    Although she’s sure private school was the best route for her son, Mitvalsky still seems conflicted about how his departure could have contributed to budget shortfalls in the Cedar Rapids Community School District.

    She, along with all property owners in Iowa, continues to help pay for public education through her property taxes. But state aid for schools is allocated based on student enrollment.

    With one fewer student, Landyn’s state dollars disappeared from the public school’s budget when he left.

    Mitvalsky would rather see an influx of money for public schools.

    “The biggest disservice,” she said, “is the underfunding of public education in the United States.

    “But I’ve got to make sure my kid is getting what he needs. And people will throw that in my face,” she said, adding she sometimes get the question: Why are public schools good enough for other kids, but not yours?

    “They’re not good enough for anyone,” she answers. “Our public schools need to be better, but I can’t sit around and wait.”

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