Guest Columnist

Iowa must embrace school choice

Marion homeschool students wait for their turn testing the strength of their balsa wood bridges at the Marion Home Schoo
Marion homeschool students wait for their turn testing the strength of their balsa wood bridges at the Marion Home School Assistance Program on Thursday, Feb. 14, 2019. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)

From illnesses to lost jobs, the coronavirus crisis has taken a toll on Iowa families. It’s also prompted statewide discussion about how to keep kids learning and whether families need more school choice. Difficult as the circumstances are, I’m grateful for the renewed attention we are giving to K-12 education. School choice is much more than an idea to debate in times of trouble; it’s a critical tool that allows parents to give their children the learning opportunities that are best for them.

School choice operates on the premise that children deserve access to a quality education that meets their needs, regardless of race, color, or income. For my family, having school choice has empowered us to choose a private school for our four daughters where they receive an education that nourishes our Catholic faith and respects our Hispanic heritage.

School choice is about students. Choice empowers parents — a child’s strongest advocates, and the people who best know his or her skills and interests — to select the learning environment that will allow their child to shine. I’ve seen school choice help my own children thrive, and I hope to see our state continue to expand learning options and resources for Iowa families.

Some families might worry that private school tuition is inaccessible to their family. Fortunately, Iowa has a School Tuition Organization program. This program allows individuals to donate to fund tuition grants for students to attend the school of their choosing. Donors receive a 65 percent tax credit, and the grants go to families who could not afford private school on their own. A recent bill passed by our Legislature even increased funding for this program, allowing several thousand more Iowa children to receive grants every year.

But private schools aren’t the only school choice. Families can also choose traditional public schools, home schooling, magnet programs, or virtual education programs. Iowa school choice includes open enrollment, in which parents in some districts can choose a public school for their child outside their neighborhood boundaries.

As a parent, I also believe that school choice doesn’t stop once you’ve signed enrollment papers at a particular school. School choice means choosing to stay invested in your children’s education year-round. Volunteering and being a part of my children’s school community has been one of the most rewarding experiences I could have imagined. Particularly this past year, the close-knit community we are a part of has been a steadying force for us and our children.

If we can find any good in the pandemic’s difficult disruptions, perhaps that good is that all families felt more keenly the impact of their child having (or not having) a safe place to learn that works for them. It is my hope that the challenges of the past year will encourage our state to expand school choice resources, so that every family can find a school that supports them through thick and thin.

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This School Choice Week (Jan. 24-30), I am grateful for my family’s school choice and the adventures it has taken us on in growing as a family. School choice is much more than just an idea; it is a tool used by tens of thousands of families daily, so that children can receive an education that is responsive to who they are and how they learn.

Jacky Ochoa of Denison is a longtime school volunteer and parent advocate.

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