Private School Educators

Iowa Press | Episode
Aug 18, 2023 | 27 min

On this edition of Iowa Press, Josh Bowar, head of school at Sioux Center Christian School and interim outreach director for the Iowa Association of Christian Schools, and Jennifer Raes, principal at St. Anthony Catholic School in Des Moines, discuss private education in Iowa. 

Joining moderator Kay Henderson at the Iowa Press table are Linh Ta of Axios, Des Moines and Caleb McCullough of the Quad City Times and the Lee newspapers in Iowa. 

Program support provided by: Associated General Contractors of Iowa, Iowa Bankers Association and FUELIowa.


Kay Henderson A new school year is about to begin, the first in which some Iowa families can get state money to help pay for private school tuition. We'll talk with two private school administrators on this edition of Iowa Press.

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Announcer For decades, Iowa Press has brought you political leaders and newsmakers from across Iowa and beyond celebrating 50 years of broadcast excellence on statewide Iowa PBS. This is the Friday, August 18th edition of Iowa Press. Here is Kay Henderson.

Kay Henderson We're starting a two part series about the new educational savings accounts in Iowa that are state funded to cover private school expenses. Today, our guests are from the private school sector. In a couple of weeks, we'll have guests from private school sector. Our guests today are Jennifer Raes. She is the principal at Saint Anthony Catholic School in Des Moines.

Kay Henderson In Metro Des Moines. 19 and a half percent of all the approved essays in the past couple of weeks came from metro Des Moines. Our other guest is Josh Bowar. He is the head of school at Sioux Center Christian School and the interim outreach director for the Iowa Association of Christian Schools. In case you didn't know, the highest approved applications for the essays per capita came from Sioux County.

Kay Henderson Thanks to both of you for being here.

Josh Bowar Thank you.

Kay Henderson Also joining the conversation are Linh Ta of Axios, Des Moines and Caleb McCullough of the Quad City Times and the Lee newspapers in Iowa.

Caleb McCollough So let's let's start today by learning a little bit more about your schools. What does enrollment look like for this coming year? And have that been has that been pushed up by the education savings account? And Jennifer, let's start with you.

Jennifer Raes Sure. We were shooting for around 310 K-8 students pre year. We started looking at our budget back in the late winter. And then when we get done here before I came here and look at the numbers, we're setting about 350. So it's hard to say for sure if all those come from ESA right now. But I would say about we usually pick up 10 to 15 kids over an average summer anyway.

Jennifer Raes And so we're looking at about 50 kids that we picked up.

Josh Bowar So at Susan or Christian, we have just about 550 students, K through eight. We ended the school year in May with 520, so we've increased by 30 kids over the summer and have been tracking what that looks like. And those have been due to the ESA opportunities. And so families have been sharing that with us. So yeah, it's been a good thing that way.

Josh Bowar Yeah.

Caleb McCollough And then what about tuition? What is tuition for this coming year? And is that higher than last year because of the access that families have to this state funding change?

Josh Bowar Yeah. So we were wanting to make sure that whatever we charge for tuition is based on the services that we offer as a school. And so we actually had our budget in place and have worked through all of those numbers before the ESA bill even passed. And so this is a huge help for families with that, those tuition costs.

Josh Bowar But our tuition dollars were not contingent on the essay bill that was all figured out beforehand.

Kay Henderson So what was the tuition increase?

Josh Bowar Yeah, so we increased our tuition by 3% from last year, which is very typical from what we do. It's based upon giving our faculty and staff raises every year. And so it was a it was a normal increase on what we had done from previous years.

Jennifer Raes Ours is actually the same. We work hours out, start working out through November and December. So that was before we knew anything for sure. With the ESAs and we do have an in-person out of personal rate, which we've always had. And so right now that is 7000 for that out of parish. Right.

Kay Henderson Just to clarify for people who might not know, if you belong to the St Anthony's Parish, your tuition is lower as a parent sending a kid there, right.

Jennifer Raes As long as you're attending mass and giving at mass because the church really helps with our budget.

Linh Ta So you both shared that you're raising the tuition by single digits, but some different private schools around the state have chosen to raise their tuition by double digits. Jennifer, can you share do you think that's fair of them?

Jennifer Raes I don't really have an opinion on what they did because as an outsider of what they're doing, I don't know their budget process or how they went about it or the timeline of when they did it, you know, like how we did it back in the summer. I don't know when they went about it. Yeah. Yeah.

Josh Bowar Yeah, that's a fair question. And to look at what most schools or every school does is looks at their expenses to see what what dollars need to come in to support that. And so when you think about schools who are thinking about increases in costs from personnel to supplies, I'm sure they're some of the thinking that goes into that and also wanting to to provide the best opportunity for kids at school.

Josh Bowar And so, like Jennifer said, you know, every school has their own process that they take to do that. And so, yeah, we we respect how they handle that.

Kay Henderson But to sum, it looked as if schools were raising the tuition rate because they knew that the 70 $600 was coming.

Jennifer Raes And that could be a possibility that maybe it was. You know, we've always had a tuition rate that's really under what it costs to educate a child. So it's possible that you can make up a little ground for what it's getting closer to what it does cost to educate a child. So there is that possibility.

Linh Ta You know, now that you have this money, that will help you kind of get closer to the actual costs. Can you talk a little bit more specifically about what you use the increased tuition for? Will it raised teacher and administrator salaries? Jennifer.

Jennifer Raes A couple of examples. The salaries are lower. We run around 15 to 20000 under other educators and public system. So, you know, maybe over time, not currently. We could possibly make up some of that ground. A lot of textbooks that we have are out of date, so it would be nice to put some money towards those. They're not cheap.

Jennifer Raes So that would be some of the things that we would want to focus on is what we can do to increase what we offer to our students.

Josh Bowar Sure. Yeah. So I think I think it's important to understand the the purpose of of this program, which is to support parental choice. And so when you think about this is not a program that was put in place to support a certain kind of school or a certain school building. So for us, the the cost of our tuition is has always been more than what the SSA dollars are supporting.

Josh Bowar And so the idea is to give all families access to schools that they think are the best fit for their kids. And so the idea here, the point of this is not to benefit schools. It's not to have more money coming into schools or for schools to to benefit from this, but to be able to provide a place that parents can pick.

Josh Bowar And parents of all means can choose.

Kay Henderson So those of us on this side of the table sort of cover the legislature debate about this and the critics of this proposal. Josh, and in in your capacity with the Association of Christian Schools. The critics say that taxpayer dollars should not support private education. Why isn't that what the state should do?

Josh Bowar Yeah, So I think when you think about that and you think about the purpose of what's being provided in our state, the state of Iowa has said, and we've all agreed that it's a common good that all of the kids in our state are educated. It's something that we require attendance records. We make sure that parents have their kids coming to school.

Josh Bowar And it's also important to remember where the dollars that our government has, where those come from. Right. Those are provided by taxpayers. And taxpayers in Iowa are also choosing Christian schools, Catholic schools and other options, too. So actually, when you think about the idea of equity, this system is actually more equitable. And I'm excited to be able to move forward with that because the parents that have been choosing private schools have actually been paying for educations in two ways.

Josh Bowar They've been paying through their taxes, which is our our system that we that we support and we agree upon. And they've also been paying through tuition. And so all the parents who are attending our schools with their kids are paying taxes as well. And so the idea of taxpayer money is that equitable piece of of having parents choose.

Kay Henderson But if you look at where these applications for essays came from, again, almost 20% came from the Des Moines metro. Parents who live in the Des Moines metro and there were three counties in which parents had no private school option. How is that fair?

Josh Bowar So what I see happening and what will be a really great opportunity is that this is going to open up ways for schools to begin and so that parents can have choices in those places that do not currently have another option for them to go to. This has really provided a pathway forward for schools of all kinds to be able to start and that parents can have that choice to be able to open those opportunities.

Caleb McCollough So in schools, you know, if there are enrollment increases, tuition increases, maybe getting some, you know, increased funds coming to the school for various services, how can taxpayers be assured that this money will be going to improve the educations of students? Josh, weren't you.

Josh Bowar Sure. No, that's a very fair question. And accountability is something that's really important to us. So our schools have a couple of options when it comes to accreditation. They can either choose to be accredited through the State Department of Education, which many schools do, and go through their process and follow the the procedures that a public school would follow in Iowa.

Josh Bowar In Iowa, we also have the opportunity to do what's called independent accreditation, where there are outside groups that are a third party that are coming to visit our schools, that have really rigorous standards. They do site visits. They make sure that we are we're doing what we say we're doing. The other piece of this that I think is really important is that when a parent is deciding where they're going to school, they are choosing where that school or what that school is.

Josh Bowar And so they're choosing with their feet. Right. And so our biggest form of accountability is the parents that are choosing where their kids are going to school. And if we're not doing well and we're not meeting their expectations and holding the line there, they leave. Right. And that's something that we always have to think about, too.

Kay Henderson Jennifer, one of the arguments by people who support this policy is that competition is great. So are the test scores at your school equal to raising the test scores at Des Moines Public Schools?

Jennifer Raes You say are they equal to or raising. Mm hmm. Like, are we raising.

Kay Henderson The idea behind this is that competition is great if you have public and private competing against each other. They were both rise. So are both rising.

Jennifer Raes I don't know that we're competing against each other and the boots on the ground. As educators, we're all trying our hardest in those classrooms to meet our kids needs. So the teachers, whether I'm talking to a public school or a private school, they're working hard with their kids to raise those kids scores and it also goes into the home life.

Jennifer Raes So the more supportive parents you have, then those kids are going to have better scores. And so a lot of it is the boots on the ground at home, too. So it's a partnership of home and school and raising those scores. So I just don't I don't see it as a competition. And I know it gets played that way out there, you know, in the media and politics.

Jennifer Raes But I'm not in competition with those teachers.

Kay Henderson Well, Josh, how many private schools are there in Sioux County?

Josh Bowar I believe there's 14. 15. Yeah.

Kay Henderson So what is it? Do they do students in those schools score better than the students who are in public schools in Sioux County?

Josh Bowar I think it's all across the board. Right. And we all in Sioux County and across the state. I like what Jennifer said about this is about education for all kids in Iowa. And it's not in us them. This is a together. We would never support a legislation or a bill or any kind of action that we feel would harm some kids in Iowa.

Josh Bowar We want to make sure that this is a this is something that can help all of the schools and and I think that it's just important that this is the idea is to broaden the choices that parents have. So this is not about schools. It's not about a certain kind of school versus another school. It's giving families options and helping them choose which is best for their kid.

Caleb McCollough Now, once this is fully implemented, even I was wealthiest families will be able to use these public funds. There will be an income cap when it comes to other programs like farm subsidies, for example. Iowa's leaders often argue that wealthy people should not be able to benefit, you know, as much as people who are struggling from these government subsidies.

Caleb McCollough So, Jennifer, why should Des Moines wealthiest families be able to use this money in the same way that we're struggling families to it to attend these private schools?

Jennifer Raes I do want to be open to people. I want everyone to have the opportunity to choose what's best for their child. So I'm glad that there's doors opening for people and it's not limited. Our schools aren't loaded with people based on the dollars in their bank account. But I don't personally know how to set a standard of where the cut off is for somebody to go.

Jennifer Raes Okay, you've just now become just too wealthy for that so that people above my pay grade get to decide that. So I don't I don't know where that cut off is. And maybe those people will turn it down. Maybe those people won't apply because they'll say, you know what, I have the money to put into my my child's education, so I don't need to apply for those dollars.

Josh Bowar And I think if you think about comparing to other programs that we have in the state, when you think about education, so think about preschool and then the Iowa tuition grants for colleges, those are available to families in much the same way that these essay dollars are as well. And when you think about the public school families, those who are choosing that place for for their families, there are wealthy families in the public school as well who are having the state tax dollars support their education.

Josh Bowar So, again, it's it's leveling that playing field of all the families are paying the tax dollars and then they can choose that for which school that they would like to go to. The idea behind this, again, is to provide choice for those kids.

Linh Ta As a private school, you also get to choose which students get to enroll. What are your school's policies regarding rejecting students?

Jennifer Raes Jennifer That's a good question. I'd say rejecting that is probably a harsh word for myself and a lot of our schools. That hasn't changed at all with this ESEA bill. What we've always done is I'm saying yes to every single kid that I can and I want everybody that comes to the door and says, We want to come here.

Jennifer Raes I want to say yes to them. The reality is I'm also not going to take money from somebody when I cannot meet their child's needs. If I don't have the capability, then I'm not going to let you down and say, yes, I can take your child, but I really can't meet their needs. So sometimes I have to say no, it breaks my heart and it's a tough conversation.

Jennifer Raes But if I know that the public system can do better for them, then I'm going to be straight up and honest with them and and work through that. Sometimes I can partner with the public system. We do that a lot. We have a great Des Moines public I and our school system has a great relationship, so we work together to educate kids.

Jennifer Raes So sometimes that's an option and then sometimes they go to the public system altogether.

Linh Ta Can you give an example of, you know, when you may have to say no and when it's best for a student to go to a public school instead?

Jennifer Raes Yeah, like one example, we don't have the funding to have like full time associates with students. So if I had a student at my school that had that need, I would be just fully laying that student down to not have somebody to be by their side or to help them with the needs that they have.

Kay Henderson Like a deaf student.

Jennifer Raes That's a good example.

Kay Henderson So for that, parent doesn't have a choice, right? Right.

Jennifer Raes Not to go in. That's our school.

Josh Bowar Well, the benefit, though, is that there are there are private and non public schools in Iowa who are equipped to do that and who definitely want to be and that this could provide that choice for those families as well. And so when you think about what what the opportunities are out there is, I see new schools starting that will not would not have been possible at this point to do that.

Josh Bowar And the the increased resources that a parent now has to take with them with their child will help those things to happen.

Kay Henderson So how many new schools are starting this year?

Josh Bowar So we have the Iowa Association of Christian Schools. We've been in contact with 20 schools who are thinking about starting, and we've just been kind of connecting for the last three weeks. So this has definitely been a catalyst for providing an opportunity for schools to start that that can meet those kids needs. And what a beautiful thing to celebrate.

Josh Bowar We are adding to the diversity of the education options that are available in our state. When you add those schools, the chances of a parent having an opportunity for a child to go to a school that they believe is their best fit, those that goes up. And that's that's a huge thing to celebrate.

Linh Ta You know, some of the students that may benefit the most by being able to go use the essay and go to a private school are, you know, low income students, but students who also may have behavioral issues. How do you support them then, as a private school? And do you admit them equally as well?

Josh Bowar Sure. So, you know, at Sioux Center, Christian, it has really become a huge part of our heart and our mission to have what we call inclusive education program. And so actually, 20% of our students are served somehow on a504 plan or an inclusion plan, whether that's supported in the classroom or maybe they need certain reading instruction that is one on one, or we call them paraprofessionals, like what you had.

Josh Bowar But it is our heart that we want. If a parent wants to choose our school, we want to do our very best. Of course, we're very upfront. If we don't feel like we're equipped to do that. But we definitely do everything possible to try to make that happen.

Kay Henderson Data released by the state in July indicated that 60% of the approved applications at that point came from parents who had already had a student enrolled in a private school in Iowa. 40%, obviously, were searching for an opening. I think maybe, Jennifer, you may not have the data on a statewide basis, but Josh, you may have some inkling are those 40% of applications going to find a spot in a private school?

Josh Bowar Yeah, And that's that's why I've been talking about the opportunity for these schools to start, because there is more demand in our state right now than there are seats in the nonpublic schools. And so we want to encourage schools of all kinds that that would like to start a place in Iowa to to really meet those needs of whether.

Kay Henderson That be for the next academic year, not for the one that starts.

Josh Bowar That's right. That's right. Yeah.

Caleb McCollough And so once the school year starts here, families will be able to use a marketplace set up by Odyssey, the company running this program to purchase services like tutoring. Can you just tell us a little bit about how will that work at your school? Is it, you know, selected by the school as a statewide marketplace? The same for every student?

Caleb McCollough Jennifer.

Jennifer Raes There you can set up your vendors in there and work through that. But the money goes into Odyssey and then it's directly paid to those vendors.

Kay Henderson So what the question is, are the vendors approved on a statewide basis or does every school get to approve, for instance, the tutors that tutor kids in that particular school?

Jennifer Raes I'm going to defer. You know that because I don't handle the business side of that.

Josh Bowar Yeah. So the vendors are approved at the state level and they have a vetting process to go through to be approved by by Odyssey.

Caleb McCollough And so we've been talking about equity quite a bit. Public school students obviously won't have the same access and and the ability to use these public funds for these services. Do you think that gives an advantage to private school students when it comes to preparing for post-secondary education, for example, that public school students won't have?

Josh Bowar Well, I think what's important is that we want a school that best meets each child. And so when we think about the tax dollars that are supporting education, those tax dollars are supporting the education of kids in the public school as well. And they have for four decades. And now what we're seeing is that equity is the those dollars are supporting parents who are choosing kids for the private schools.

Josh Bowar And that and that's our heart is that there would be a home for a child in a school that best meets their need and that parents would be able to choose that.

Kay Henderson But I guess the question is, a student at your school or a Christian school, can use this state tax dollar to take a class to prepare them to take the S.A.T. or the A.C.T., or as students in public schools in Iowa don't have that subsidy. Is that fair?

Josh Bowar You know, that's that's the way that the bill was written and what we are putting in place to support that. So, yeah, of course, we're for opportunities for for all the kids in Iowa. And that's what we're working through with with the legislation.

Kay Henderson What happens if this all goes away, if Iowa gets a new governor and a new legislature?

Josh Bowar Josh Yeah, I think that would be a very hard thing for our state. It'd be a very poor decision. And the idea behind this is this is what parents want. They want to be able to choose where their kids go to school. When you see polling of what that looks like, it's very popular when a parent has choices.

Josh Bowar And so what we're looking at and we look across the nation to that Iowa's not the only place that has this opportunity. We are definitely one of the trailblazers, but we're not the first and we're not the only. There's never been a school choice that has had students enrolled in it that has gone away. Parents have enjoyed it.

Josh Bowar They've appreciated it has a benefit for our state to make sure that all students are educated well. And so it's for the common good of our state.

Linh Ta Lawmakers had concerns previously that there could be strings attached to the ESA in the future. Jennifer, do you have any worries that the essay could later have some more strings attached to it?

Jennifer Raes I think things unfold as we go, just like some of the questions that you've asked and we're trying to make our way through it. So there's probably always that possibility and we're just going to keep plowing through to do our best for these kids and their families to make their choice.

Kay Henderson Josh, do you have anything to add?

Josh Bowar Yeah, I think the way that the bill was written really respects the missions of the schools in Iowa, and we really want to make sure that that's protected as well and that they can have integrity there. And we'll continue to.

Kay Henderson Work with that. Raise your hand if you have air conditioning in your school for when school starts on the 23rd.

Josh Bowar Yeah, it's been.

Jennifer Raes Running and the power didn't go out. Yeah.

Kay Henderson Okay. Well, thank you both for being here today and joining this conversation.

Josh Bowar Thank you. Thank you.

Kay Henderson Just a note. I misspoke at the beginning of this program. In two weeks, we will be hearing from public school educators education savings accounts in this state. For everyone here at Iowa, PBS. Thanks for watching today.

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