Starting last fall, the Iowa Association of Christian Schools (IACS) started an annual cycle of surveying our schools to get year-over-year data on the state of our membership and insight into the successes and challenges they are facing.
This year, we sent surveys to 74 schools with 40 responding.
There have been significant changes in the educational environment for our schools this year. With the passing of the “Students First Act” in January of 2023, the year was spent shifting gears as schools sought to implement Education Savings Accounts (ESAs) with fidelity and to navigate a quick turnaround on rules and changes in their business offices.
This sea-change in education policy in Iowa has made year-over-year observations a little more challenging, as the preceding twelve months have changed enrollment trends and future planning for schools. There are also evolving challenges that come with growth that started during the pandemic and accelerated this year. Data from the survey shows that, overall, schools and parents are pleased with the first-year rollout of ESAs. The stability that families feel in their choice of education environment for their kids has impacted the survey results in a positive, substantial way.
School Facts and Demographics:
- The smallest school completing the survey enrolled 23 students this year and the largest enrolled 1,165.
- Average enrollment was 208.
- Average enrollment growth this year was 12.8% vs 4.5% last year.
- When asked if they consider themselves urban, suburban, or rural schools, 12.5% said urban, 35% said suburban, and 52.5% said rural.
- 30% of schools report having a waiting list for one or more grade levels.
- Schools report, on average, it would take 36% enrollment growth to get to full capacity given their current facilities and staffing levels.
- 72.5% of schools report having adjusted their tuition to move closer to the actual cost to educate since the passage of ESAs.
- Schools report approximately 10% of their students come to their schools with an IEP or would have one if they attended another educational option.
- 19% of students are receiving aid through the Educational Opportunities Act (STO Tax Credit) whether or not they have an ESA this year.
- 19% of students are receiving privately raised, non-STO and non-ESA tuition assistance.
- 35% of schools report plans to add grade levels or sections over the next 1-2 school years.
- When schools were asked if parents indicate the enrollment process for the ESA is convenient, 90% agreed or somewhat agreed, with only 10% somewhat disagreeing or disagreeing.
- When asked if parents indicate the process for approval of ESA payments to schools/vendors is convenient, 90% agreed or somewhat agreed, with only 10% somewhat disagreeing or disagreeing.
- When asked if the school receives timely ESA payments from parents through the program, 90% agree or somewhat agree, while only 10% somewhat disagree or disagree.
Challenges and Future Outlook:
Schools indicated a number of challenges moving forward, but two stood out as the most common. 65% of schools said “finding qualified staff” was among their most significant hurdles and 32.4% said “school finances, budgeting, and/or setting tuition rates” was a significant hurdle (down from 70% last year).
Other challenges include marketing to prospective students (24%, down from 59% last year) and “state and local regulations” (22%).
ESA implementation has been remarkably smooth considering the quick turnaround between the programs’ passage and implementation this fall.
One of the areas that has received the most attention since the school year started is tuition rates. Although 72.5% of schools reported adjusting tuition to move closer to the actual cost to educate, most reporting has not focused on the existing trend toward a more sustainable business model that was well underway before ESAs passed this year. Iowa is seeing fewer private schools close and more look to open since the trend has begun to change old, unsustainable models to modern ones that provide more opportunities for students and afford schools the ability to compete for talent.
The move to tuition models that are sustainable and more closely aligned with costs will help, over time, private schools to attract faculty and staff (their biggest hurdle moving forward) and to reverse the trend of private school closures that have plagued the private education sector nationwide for two decades.
In conclusion, we believe that Iowa’s Christian schools are similarly positioned with our Catholic and nonsectarian school counterparts in seeing increased stability with ESAs and increased demand based on both ESAs and factors that have contributed to enrollment growth since 2020.