Time to review Iowa's generous state support for private K-12 schools

Pat O’Donnell is a resident of Sioux Center and spent 37 years serving in Iowa public schools as a teacher, principal and superintendent. He may be reached at patnancy@zoho.com.

Under Iowa’s new school voucher plan, the state will provide “education savings accounts” worth $7,635 per student attending an accredited nonpublic school each year. The program, created in January through the Students First Act (House File 68), may cost $144 million in the first year alone.

But for many years prior to passage of the Students First Act, Iowa has provided programs and resources to private schools, in the form of services, reimbursements and tax advantages. Now that private schools are receiving so much additional public money, should those supports be repealed?

Here are some examples of the programs and resources Iowa has long provided to private K-12 schools.

Textbook services: School districts may make nonsectarian textbooks available to pupils attending accredited nonpublic schools upon request of the pupil or the pupil’s parent. Availability is comparable to the amount of textbook funds the General Assembly appropriates to public school students per Iowa Code §301.1. Textbook requests are submitted to local public schools. Reimbursements also pass through local public schools.

Iowa Code §§273.2, 273.3(19), and 257.37 states that area education agencies (AEAs) shall provide educational and special education services to accredited nonpublic schools and may provide other services, at the AEA’s discretion, and may charge a user fee for non-mandatory services.

School districts and area education agency boards shall provide special education services; diagnostic services for speech, hearing, and psychological purposes; remedial education programs; and guidance services to children attending nonpublic schools in the same manner and to the same extent provided to public school students, under Iowa Code §256.12(2).

Transportation support from public schools. Iowa students attending accredited nonpublic schools are entitled to transportation on the same basis as that provided to public school students. Parents may be reimbursed for some transportation costs. See Iowa Code §§285.1(3), 285 and 285.16. At designated periods throughout the school year, private schools submit to local public school records of the total number of private school students that have ridden private school transportation. The transportation reimbursement is funneled to the private school through the local public school.

Private-school students may enroll in public-school courses not offered at the private school. In this way, private schools may comply with state standards for required courses according to Iowa Code §256.12(1).

Concurrent enrollment or dual enrollment programs – earning community college credit while attending a secondary school program: See 281 IAC 22.11(3). A student who attends an accredited nonpublic school and desires access to postsecondary enrollment options shall meet the same eligibility criteria as students in the school district in which the accredited nonpublic school is located. The state contributes $1 million for nonpublic students’ participation.

Public aid for private education is determined by Iowa’s constitution, which states, “The general assembly shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; nor shall any person be compelled to attend any place of worship, pay tithes, taxes, or other rates for building or repairing places of worship, or the maintenance of any minister, or ministry.” Iowa Constitution, art. I, § 3.

That language is very similar to the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which defines the government as neutral on the issue of religion. Providing monetary aid to private religious institutions promotes the religion of that institution thereby violating the Establishment Clause. Yet, prior to the passage of the Students First Act. The state has provided financial assistance to private schools and private school parents. These include but are not limited to the following.

Financial assistance programs for Iowa private-school attendance include an education tax credit for tuition and textbook expenses for parents and students in accredited public or private schools. It doesn’t apply to expenses related to teaching religious tenets, doctrine, or worship. The credit is 25 percent of the first $1,000 the taxpayer has paid per dependent under Iowa Code §422.12.

Nonpublic students are also eligible to receive tuition assistance from the student tuition organization (STO) tax credit, regardless of whether they use or have applied for a private school voucher. The credit makes taxpayers who voluntarily contribute to a qualified school tuition organization eligible to receive an individual income tax credit of 65% of the contribution’s value.

A school tuition organization is qualified if it is a nonprofit organization that supports private school scholarships. The contributing taxpayer is not allowed to specify which students receive the scholarships. The annual family income of a student eligible to receive the scholarship cannot exceed an amount equal to or three times the most recent published federal poverty guidelines. See Iowa Code §422.11S.

With implementation of the Students First Act, parents now can receive $7,635 per student attending an accredited nonpublic school. The funding is not subject to tax. It simply replaces previous funding streams used to support private-student education. These streams include, but are not limited to, parents, grandparents, support from associated congregational churches, and scholarships from local post-secondary institutions that require employees to send their children to private schools.

The money that is now available to private school parents, grandparents, and others that have paid for private education allows for the money that was used to fund private school costs to be used for other uses such as College Savings Iowa 529.

Iowans, through tax dollars, supported private schools long before the Students First Act educational savings accounts were approved. It’s time to reevaluate support systems that were already provided and ask private education to carry its own weight.

Accountability measures that apply to any other public institution receiving tax money also should apply to private schools that receive public money. Private schools can’t give tuition rebates to parents who use educational savings accounts, but that’s the only restriction on how they can spend those tax dollars. All school employees, whether public or private, are human beings and capable of misusing or stealing money, especially without oversight.

It’s also time for private schools to accept any student, regardless of ethnicity, language, disability, race, socio-economic status, or creed.

Public education is the backbone of our democracy. Public schools, which serve 93.5 percent of the K-12 students in Iowa deserve to be treated fairly in rules, regulations, and accountability. Public schools serve all students as defined by the Iowa Civil Rights Act, which states that employment, housing, public accommodations, education, and credit considerations cannot be based on a person’s color, creed, gender identity, marital status, mental disability, national origin, physical disability, race, religion, retaliation, sex, sexual orientation.

Top photo of Ottumwa High School facade is by McMillin24 and available via Wikimedia Commons.

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  • we just need to keep public dollars tied to public services

    I don’t know how closely Iowa law is bound to decisions by the Supreme Court about the Constitution but would be interested in how all of this is, or isn’t, affected by Grassley and co.’s Supreme Court’s reversal of long standing precedent on these matters:

    The Supreme Court Benches the Separation of Church and State

    Also in so much as private religious schools are generally extensions the missions of churches, mosques, etc can’t imagine that this “it’s also time for private schools to accept any student, regardless of ethnicity, language, disability, race, socio-economic status, or creed” would hold up in the courts even under the old legal regime and even if it would do we really want the government telling private religious organizations how to practice their ministries?

    • Into the Wind

      Admire this piece for its thoughtful and well researched content.

      But even more so because it cannot be a popular position to advance in Sioux County Iowa.

      No way.

      Kudos to Pat for walking straight into the wind on this one.

      A courageous voice.