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Education savings grants bill leaves out big group

Homeschooling 1By Bob Eschliman
Editor

 

A bill trumpeted by Senate Republicans and offered yesterday with all 24 GOP senators signed on as sponsors has a number of families in Iowa scratching their heads.

Senate File 240, a bill to provide education savings grants for students in grades K-12 who don’t attend public schools, would create individual spending accounts for each student who signs up for the grants. The accounts would receive funding from the General Fund equal to the statewide average regular program state foundation aid per student in the same school year.

Those funds can then be used for payment of “qualified educational expenses.” Any unexpended funds are then rolled over to the next school year. And, after the student graduates high school or receives his or her high school equivalency diploma, up to the age of 23, excess funds remaining may be used for “higher education costs.”

There’s just one problem. If your family dual-enrolls your students in order to participate in interscholastic athletics or to take driver education classes, or if your family has opted for individual private instruction, you cannot request a grant under the proposed legislation.

That part has a number of homeschool families – many of which have the same expenses as those who provide “competent private instruction” – wondering why they don’t qualify.

“Under the bill, pupils eligible to enroll in grades kindergarten through 12 and attending a nonpublic school or receiving competent private instruction under Code chapter 299A are eligible to receive an education savings grant for school years beginning on or after July 1, 2016,” the bill’s explanatory statement reads. “By January 31 preceding the school year for which the education savings grant is requested, the parent or guardian of the pupil requesting to receive an education savings grant must submit an application to the department of education indicating that the parent or guardian intends to enroll the pupil in a nonpublic school or provide competent private instruction for the pupil.”

SF 240 authorizes the Iowa Department of Education to contract with a private financial management firm to manage the education savings grant fund, in collaboration with the Treasurer of State. Disbursement of education savings grants would be in the form of an electronic debit card, or checks that are payable directly from the student’s account within the fund.

The proposed legislation also provides for protections against fraud. It also makes education savings grants exempt from individual income taxes. If enacted, the bill would go into effect for the Fiscal Year 2017 (beginning July 1, 2016) school year.

The Iowa Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church, the Interfaith Alliance of Iowa, and the Iowa Association of School Boards are opposed to the bill. The Iowa Catholic Conference and Iowa Advocates for Choice in Education support the bill.

Justin LaVan, president of the Network of Iowa Christian Home Educators, said his organization has not yet reviewed the bill. The Senate Republican Caucus has not yet responded to requests for comment from The Iowa Statesman, but communications director Chris Dorsey was working to get a response.

This article will be updated as warranted.