On August 18, the Iowa PBS program “Iowa Press” hosted Josh Bowar, Sioux Center Christian School Head of School, and Jennifer Raes, principal of St. Anthony School, a Catholic institution in Des Moines. The topic for discussion: Iowa’s Students First Act, the new program directing state tax dollars to support private school tuition for every kindergarten through 12th-grade student in the state.
The bill establishes a framework and financing for education savings accounts (ESAs), also known as vouchers, which eligible families may use to cover tuition, fees, and other qualified education expenses at Iowa’s accredited private schools.
Full disclosure: During my years as Sioux Center Community School District superintendent, I worked closely with Dordt as a community partner and as an adjunct instructor in graduate education. I also worked closely with Bowar, who is a graduate education assistant adjunct professor in Dordt University’s School Leadership program. In addition, I taught at St. Anthony from 1982 to 1984.
Bowar is a Dordt adjunct education faculty member and president of the Iowa Association of Christian Schools (IACS). He worked with Governor Kim Reynolds and various Republican legislators to pass the bill, with assistance from Tim Van Soelen, a Dordt education professor and executive director for the Center for the Advancement of Christian Education. That center helps pre-K through 12th-grade Christian schools fulfill their missions, and lobbies for similar voucher programs in other states.
The September 1 edition of “Iowa Press” will feature public school representatives providing their views on the new voucher policy. It will air on Iowa PBS stations at 7:30 p.m. on September 1 and again at noon on September 3. The latest “Iowa Press” program addressed concerns that education savings account opponents have raised. A transcript can be found at the Iowa PBS website.
NOT ALL PARENTS WILL HAVE CHOICES
Bowar was asked about private school tuition increases since the bill became law. “So I think it’s important to understand the purpose of this program,” he responded, “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.”
For Sioux Center Christian School, Bowar said, the cost of tuition has always exceeded State Supplemental Aid, the tax dollars legislators allocate to local districts.
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 benefit from this, but to be able to provide a place that parents can pick. And parents of all means can choose.
To say that all parents can choose is inaccurate. Non-English speaking students or those with severe developmental disabilities will have no choice. Parents of low socio-economic-status will still be unable to afford attendance at most private schools: tuition at most of them exceeds the voucher’s $7,635 per-student allotment. Unlike public schools, private schools aren’t required to waive fees for low-income families as defined by the National School Lunch Program and School Breakfast Program. And low-income parents may need to provide transportation to private schools. (The education savings account funds can’t be used for “transportation costs.”)
Sioux has the highest per capita applications of any county in the state, with eleven private schools and 1,183 approved applications (which works out to 32.8 per 1,000 residents). Most of the remaining applications are in Iowa’s metro areas: Polk County (3,144), Linn County (1,318), Scott County (1,306), Dubuque (882), and Blackhawk (942). Some 42 Iowa counties have no private schools; 75 have no private schools through 12th grade.
When Bowar states, “the idea is to give all families access to schools that they think are the best fit for their kids,” that’s inaccurate. In many counties, families will have no options.
According to welfareinfo.org, Lyon County has the lowest poverty rate in the state at 4.5 percent for 12,000 people. Sioux County, just to the south, has the fourth-lowest poverty rate at 5.4 percent for 33,000 people. Therefore, two of the state’s wealthiest counties will receive the lion’s share of the vouchers for rural counties. In essence, the people with money are getting money.
Bowar claims that counties without private school options will see an influx of new schools. This notion is a pipe dream. New schools will mostly target higher-population areas to get a greater number of clients. To assume that 42 rural counties will have new private schools and that 33 counties will have a 12th-grade opportunity is unreasonable.
USING TAXPAYER FUNDS FOR PRIVATE SCHOOLS IS NOT EQUITABLE
“Iowa Press” moderator O.Kay Henderson asked Bowar: “The critics say that taxpayer dollars should not support private education. Why isn’t that what the state should do?” He replied that the state of Iowa has “agreed that it’s a common good that all of the kids in our state are educated.” Attendance records are mandatory. Bowar added,
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.
They’ve been paying through their taxes, which is 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 having parents choose.
I suspect that parents choose the private school option more on personal preferences than a public-school performance issue, i.e., religious education. We all pay taxes for programs and projects that we will never take advantage of or use. Parents opting for a private school make a choice and should understand the consequences of that choice, i.e., paying tuition.
Moreover, if providing public dollars for private education is equitable, then that money should be held to the same accountability and scrutiny as dollars provided to public schools.
Henderson asked whether students in Sioux County private schools score better than those in Sioux County public schools. Bowar replied, “I think it’s all across the board.” He said, “We would never support a legislation or a bill or any kind of action that we feel would harm some kids in Iowa. We want to make sure that this is a, this is something that can help all of the schools and I think that it’s just important that this is the idea is to broaden the choices that parents have.”
Regardless of what Bowar says about not harming students in Iowa, public schools will continue to be deprived of the support necessary to succeed, while the voucher program will receive at minimum $878.8 million in public funds over four years. For the 2023-2024 school year, the program is already over budget by tens of millions of dollars, because applications far exceeded projections.
Struggling rural schools will be hard pressed to provide the level of education needed for their students to succeed. Are the students in these schools less important than the subsidized private school students?
Bowar dodged the question about test scores. Ethnic minority students comprised 5.3 percent of Sioux Center Christian School’s enrollment for the 2022-2023 school year, with a free and reduced-cost lunch rate (a federal benchmark for poverty) probably in the single digits. In Sioux Center’s public schools, about 46.6 percent of students are from communities of color, some 44.7 percent come from households in poverty, 21.5 percent are from a non-English-speaking population, and a 10.3 percent need some kind of special education. Comparing student achievement between the two student bodies is comparing apples to oranges.
SUBSIDIZING WEALTHY FAMILIES IS NOT “LEVELING THE PLAYING FIELD”
“Iowa Press” panelist Caleb McCullough asked whether wealthy people should be able to benefit from these government subsidies as much as financially struggling families. “I do want to be open to people,” Raes said, adding,
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 …
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 child’s education, so I don’t need to apply for those dollars.
To believe wealthy parents will not take advantage of the voucher program is unrealistic.
Bowar added, “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 ESA dollars are as well.”
The Iowa Tuition Grant is a financial aid program providing qualifying Iowa families with up to $7,500 per academic year. Iowa private colleges and universities award the grants to eligible on-time applicants whose expected family contributions to their child’s college costs are at or below the parameter defined by Iowa College Aid, a state agency. The maximum eligible expected family contribution for students attending private, not-for-profit institutions for the 2022-2023 academic year is $15,000.
In contrast, Iowa’s new school voucher program will have no such financial parameters, beginning in the third year.
Bowar continued, “And when you think about the public school families, those who are choosing that place for their families, there are wealthy families in the public school as well who are having the state tax dollars support their education. So, again, 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.”
Subsidizing wealthy parents for private school tuition while public schools continue to be underfunded will do considerable harm to the formerly “best in the nation” school system.
BARRIERS REMAIN FOR STUDENTS WITH DISABILITIES
Regarding private schools’ selective admission policies, Bowar said that 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 percent of our students are served somehow on a 504 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.”
In the past, the local public school often subsidized these paraprofessionals in private schools.
Bower continued: “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.”
504 plans are a non-funded mandate covered under a federal civil rights law. Inclusion plans are for students that would possibly qualify for special education services. These students are covered under another federal law, Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, which makes a free appropriate public education available to eligible children with disabilities and ensures special education and related services to those children.
Private schools cannot officially administer the individual education plans these students require, so local public schools must provide their special education teachers and resources to private schools. That puts an undue strain on the public schools who are experiencing severe special education staffing shortages. Because this federal law does not provide funding for the mandated services, most public schools run a special education deficit.
Proponents claim that parents want vouchers. The most recent Iowa Poll by Selzer & Co for the Des Moines Register/Mediacom, published in March, showed that 62 percent of respondents opposed the governor’s “school choice” law, which gives families taxpayer money to pay for private schools. Only 34 percent supported the policy.
The Students First Act will continue to hobble Iowa’s public schools while providing subsidies to private school parents who typically have the resources to cover the cost of their children’s tuition. The claims that such a program is more equitable are untrue. As resources for public schools dwindle, rural students, disabled students, non-English speaking students, and students from low-income families will be deprived of their right to a free and appropriate public education.
Final note: The Iowa Legislative Services Agency produced this fiscal note on the Students First Act in May. However, it’s already clear that the program’s costs will far exceed those estimates.
Top image: Screenshot from the Iowa PBS video of this “Iowa Press” program.