ESA applications open Wednesday

Local parents who wish to obtain a Students First Education Savings Account (ESA) application will have their first opportunity on Wednesday at 8 a.m.

ESAs make it possible for parents to enroll their children in private schools — such as Marshalltown Christian School or St. Francis Catholic School — through transferring state money from the public school to parents to be used for tuition, fees and other qualified private school education-related expenses.

Since the Students First Act was signed by Gov. Kim Reynolds on Jan. 24, Marshalltown private school officials have been preparing for the May 31 opening of the ESA applications.

St. Francis Catholic School

St. Francis Principal Terry Eisenbarth said ESAs have affected the school in positive ways, such as the expected increase of enrollment.

“Based off of the size of our school, it was going to be imperative to identify a seating capacity,” he said. ‘It comes back to the size of our classrooms. We did a building walk, and they’re only so big. I don’t believe in putting so many kids in there just to let people in when it takes away from the quality of students’ learning. Because of ESAs, we acted quicker and set our seating at 16 [students] per class, 32 per grade.”

The 224 student limit is not only to maintain a quality, faith-based education, but to also retain teachers so they are not overburdened. St. Francis ended the 2022-23 year with 184 students, and has a current enrollment of 205 for the next year. The 19 student spots left are in grades first and fourth — seven in each, plus three open seats. Eisenbarth said the reality is not all ESA applicants will be able to get in.

“I don’t want to alarm people. We have a waiting pool in kindergarten, second grade and fifth grade,” he said. “We have to work with what we’re given. It’s a problem, but a good problem. Unfortunately, not everyone will get in because of the physical capabilities of what we have.”

However, the number of students should not deter applicants. Eisenbarth said things can change, such as families moving away.

St. Francis has admission priorities. The first students to be admitted are those currently enrolled, siblings of those students and children of church and school employees. The second students to be admitted are those of actively contributing parishioners. The third are students from different Catholic parishes, and the fourth are from non-Catholic families.

Eisenbarth is also expecting an increase of revenue for St. Francis. Per guidance from the Archdiocese of Dubuque, tuition was increased to $4,544 for Catholic students and $5,555 for non-Catholic students. Those costs are for ESA-qualifying families.

“If you don’t qualify, you don’t pay that. We subsidize with the Archdiocese through local scholarships,” he said. “When we said that, it made a lot of families feel a lot better with the way inflation is.”

Marshalltown Christian School

The 95 student spots in Marshalltown Christian School are full. Head of School Bethany Wirin said since the Student First Act passed, there has been a significant amount of submitted applications and interest from parents.

“We have a waiting pool,” she said. “We are maxed out on our current space, and our classes are full for the fall. We may have to move kids from one classroom to another. It’s tricky because we only have so much space.”

The school reached its capacity sometime in February, growing from a student population of 58.

“Growth came quickly,” Wirin said. “Many of the students are siblings or cousins of current students. Some were planning to enroll next fall anyway, and were thrilled they have more options.”

Word spread quickly amongst families with students already enrolled and community churches about the act being signed. Because of the increase, Wirin said they plan to hire more teachers for their dual-grade classes.

“We want everybody who wants to come to Marshalltown Community School,” she said. “We don’t want to burn out the staff. The hardest part is saying we have no space. God may bring us more space the next year.”

The increased student population has caused consideration of expansion. However, Wirin said there is only talk right now.


Rep. Sue Cahill (D-Marshalltown) said while she hopes families will finally be able to afford private schools, she did not support the Student First Act. She was concerned not all students who apply at private schools would be accepted.

“The students who have a disability or an IEP [Individualized Education Program], will they be able to meet the needs of those students?” she asked.

Eisenbarth said St. Francis can meet special needs of students to certain degrees. There is a lot of consultation between the Catholic school teachers and Marshalltown Community School District personnel when it comes to the education of such students. He also added such needs will be considered when applications are submitted.

“Will we have the capacity to serve them? It’s all about the fit and if we are able to provide service,” he said.

Wirin said Marshalltown Christian School has some teachers who are trained in educating students with dyslexia. The school will continue to add additional requirements in order to meet special needs.

“We want kids to be successful, and if we don’t have what they need, they might be better being somewhere where they are successful,” she said.

Wirin used an example of a law which could benefit special needs students. She said Arizona’s Education Forward provides parents of special needs children with $30,000 to pay for private school costs.

“If that was the case here, we could add what we need for special needs kids,” Wirin said. “But, we do a lot with what we do have.”

How ESAs will affect the Marshalltown Community School District student population is not yet known. Superintendent Theron Schutte said he is not sure how much the ESAs will affect the student numbers, but added the district enjoys strong partnerships with both of the private schools, as those students end up attending the public school.

And while the private schools have a sudden increase in student population, the public school is also experiencing growth.

“Outside of the tornado, derecho and pandemic, we have been growing slowly,” he said. “We had growth this year, and are almost to pre-derecho. Hopefully we will have an idea on measurable differences in enrollment. Time will tell the next couple of years.”

The Students First Education Savings Account applications will be available at 8 a.m. on Wednesday at the Iowa Department of Education website:


The deadline to complete and submit the application is June 30.


Contact Lana Bradstream at 641-753-6611 ext. 210 or lbradstream@timesrepublican.com.


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