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Superintendent who didn't lose students to private schools remains critical of education savings accounts

A picture of a yellow school bus.
Iowa officials had approved about 19,000 education savings accound as of last month. The final number of students receiving an ESA will be known later in the fall.

Chad Shook oversees Lawton-Bronson Community Schools, just east of Sioux City.

“It's so awesome that the first day when the kids come into school, and they're so happy to see everybody,” Shook said.

With up to 100 students open enrolling into his district each year, Shook worried some would go to nearby parochial schools this school year following Gov. Kim Reynolds' opening of education savings accounts (ESAs) that fund private school tuition with state dollars.

“I did think we would have at least a few, and we still might, I'm just not aware of any at this point," the superintendent said. "I was fearful that we would have some. Instead of open enrolling here, they could take advantage of ESAs and go to private schools.”

But that didn't happen — no public school students in the district opted to transfer to a private school. But even though his district is stable, Shook remains critical. He believes the plan ignores the funding challenges of public schools.

“The Iowa Legislature really had a chance to do something very cool for Iowa's public schools this year, and instead, they gave the money away," he said. "So, you know, did nothing to solve the teacher shortage when they had every opportunity to do so.”

Shook considers himself a lifelong conservative, like many in western Iowa, but doesn’t back the Legislature’s move to put public money into private schools.

“Way back in high school, I joined the Republican Party, just for one reason: smaller government, more local control. I have seen this Republican Legislature take more local control away from schools than I've ever in my 33 years of being in education," Shook said.

Shook says his district will receive $1,250 for every student who lives in his district and participates in the ESA program.

The Iowa Department of Education says the final number of students receiving ESAs will not be available until later this fall. In July, the state reported that 40% of the 29,000 students who applied for ESAs planned to move from public to accredited nonpublic schools. Each account is worth $7,635.

"I don't like them," Shook said. "I think public money should stay with public schools. Now we're slicing the pie up, and there are more people at the table. I believe in the long run, it's going to be it will be less money for public schools."

Sheila Brummer joined the staff of Iowa Public Radio as Western Iowa Reporter in August of 2023. She knows the area well, after growing up on a farm in Crawford County, graduating from Morningside University in Sioux City and working in local media.