Vouchers have mixed impact on Iowa’s largest schools

Beckman Catholic High School in Dyersville, Iowa, in photo from the school’s Facebook page

Randy Richardson is a former educator and retired associate executive director of the Iowa State Education Association.

Although the Iowa Department of Education won’t release official enrollment numbers until mid-December, available data already show how the new education savings accounts (commonly known as school vouchers) are affecting some of our state’s largest school districts.

The Council Bluffs Community Schools recently announced that they lost 30 students to nearby St. Albert Catholic School. The loss of those students means the district will lose $234,000 in state funding. Since teachers are already under contract for this year, and the decline in enrollment isn’t concentrated on one grade, the district will have a difficult time reducing costs.

In an interview with Sean MacKinnon of Omaha-based TV station KETV, Council Bluffs superintendent Vicki Murillo chose to look on the bright side by noting that while 30 students left the Council Bluffs school district, nearly 9,000 decided to stay.

St. Albert Catholic School, which has grades K-12, is located in Council Bluffs but attracts students from neighboring districts as well. The lead administrator at St. Albert, Pat Ryan, was positively giddy in his interview with KETV. Ryan noted that about 40 percent of his school’s students, including about 70 newly-enrolled students, are using the state’s voucher program.

Ryan told KETV he hopes the education savings accounts will help his school attract many more students. “Saint Albert just expanded the elementary school capacity by 125 students and looks to add 300 K-12 students in the coming years, a nearly 50% student body increase,” MacKinnon reported.

St. Albert increased tuition for the current school year by 5 percent ($170) and plans further tuition hikes, Ryan said.

With new students and money, Ryan says they want to pay their teachers more. They’re currently making 63% of what local public school teachers make. He says they’ll need to hit student body capacity to afford 5% raises in order to bring his teachers up to 90% of what public school teachers make.

Council Bluffs isn’t the only large district in Iowa dealing with the impact of vouchers. In a video released to members of the Iowa City school community, superintendent Matt Degner said enrollment is down. Historically, Iowa City would expect to have more students enroll, and Degner said the district was projecting increased enrollment by 75 students for the current school year. Instead, 60 fewer students enrolled this year. For funding purposes, that means the weighted enrollment of the district will decline by 110 students, and the district will lose more than $800,000 in funding for next year.

The Cedar Rapids Community Schools announced in November that their certified enrollment for the 2023-24 school year is 14,697 students, an increase of 45 students from last year. Another 841 students who live within the Cedar Rapids schools attendance area are enrolled in private or non-public schools. Grace King reported for the Cedar Rapids Gazette,

Of students in the Cedar Rapids school district attending non-public schools, the largest enrollment was in the area’s Catholic school system with almost 500 students enrolled in a Catholic school. These schools include Xavier High School, St. Pius X Elementary School, St. Matthew Elementary School, LaSalle Catholic Elementary School, LaSalle Catholic Middle School, Regis Middle School, All Saints Catholic School and St. Joseph Catholic School.

The Sioux City Community Schools released a preliminary enrollment count of 14,229 in August, which was up by about 50 students from the previous year.

According to the Dubuque Community Schools’ preliminary enrollment data, 37 students who attended the district schools last year are now enrolled in a private school, using the state’s program, Elizabeth Kelsey reported for the Dubuque Telegraph Herald in November. “On the flip side, approximately 28 students registered in the district this year after attending a private school last year.”

One of the interesting discoveries by the Telegraph Herald was that many of the students receiving vouchers in the areas private school already attended that school. At La Salle Catholic School in Holy Cross, which serves kindergarten through sixth grade, 30 out of 45 students are using vouchers, “and all of them previously were students at LaSalle.”

Similar results were found at these private schools:

  • Aquinas Catholic (Cascade): of the 63 students receiving vouchers, 62 had previously attended the school
  • Seton Catholic: 90 of the 101 students using vouchers are returning students
  • Sacred Heart School (Maquoketa): 32 of the 45 students using vouchers are returning students.
  • Beckman Catholic High School (Dyersville): 117 of the 121 students using vouchers are existing students
  • Holy Family: 402 of the 530 students using vouchers are returning students.

While the Waterloo Community School district hasn’t announced any preliminary enrollment numbers, the eight private schools in the Cedar Valley area are enjoying an increase in enrollment, Mallory Schmitz reported for the Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier in August.

Waterloo Christian is expecting an enrollment increase of 35%, slightly above the rate of annual growth for the past five years. The school will welcome 90-100 new students for a total of 310 students this fall compared with its 350 student capacity. […]

The school has been exploring ways to increase capacity and hopes to be able to double its capacity in the next three years, especially as ESA eligibility expands by the 2025-26 school year to include all K-12 students. […]

As of June 15, Cedar Valley Catholic Schools had 718 students enrolled, up from 688 last school year. The three-school system has approximately 75 new students K-12, all of whom will receive ESAs. […]

For St. Paul’s families, the addition of ESAs already is impacting tuition at the kindergarten level.

For the 2022-23 school year, tuition schoolwide was $3,500. For 2023-24, tuition for grades 1-6 has increased to $3,800. Kindergarten, on the other hand, has had tuition raised to $6,500.

While there was no available update on enrollment in the Davenport Public Schools, a local educator pointed out that kindergarten enrollment in the areas six private schools is about twice what it has been in previous years.

While our large public schools are struggling with enrollment issues, the state’s Catholic schools are celebrating. The Office of Catholic Schools in the state posted the following on their website.

It’s celebration time! Our schools have 8,840 K-12 students and 10,424 PK-12 students enrolled according to first day enrollment. This is an increase of about 300 K-12 students and about 350 for PK-12, or 4% growth!   

A special congratulations to the following schools for their outstanding increases in K-12 enrollment: 

40+% increase: 
St. Joseph, Marion 

20+% increase: 
LaSalle, Holy Cross 
Blessed Maria CVCS, Waterloo 

10+% increase: 
St. Patrick, Anamosa 
Marquette System, Bellevue 
St. Matthew, Cedar Rapids 
LaSalle, Cedar Rapids 
Regis, Cedar Rapids 
Resurrection HFCS, Dubuque 
St. Francis, Marshalltown 
St. Edward CVCS, Waterloo 
Bosco System, Gilbertville 

5+% increase: 
St. Pius, Cedar Rapids 
Immaculate Conception, Charles City 
Mazzuchelli HFCS, Dubuque 
St. Francis Xavier, Dyersville 
St. Mary, Manchester 
Newman Elementary, Mason City 
Trinity, Protivin 

The Iowa Department of Education is planning to release enrollment data for all public schools later this month. Once those numbers are available, I’ll update this information statewide; it will be interesting to see if the trends for larger school districts extend to much of the state.

About the Author(s)

Randy Richardson

  • isn't every voucher used a loss for public schools?

    is there any advantage for public schools in parents sending kids (and related funding) to private schools?

  • the loss of funding is greater

    when a student leaves a public school district to attend a private school.

    But thinking more broadly, every dollar the state spends on private school tuition is going to harm public schools in the long run.

  • Novelty

    There has to be a certain novelty going along with a parent’s new opportunity to send her kid to a private school. All things being equal, the novelty will wear thin if the parents have to sign up for an unfamiliar religious belief or practice. The “desks” in Iowa-based private schools are nearly all church-related or parochial. If the parent is sincerely wanting a “religious” education, so be it. But, as Randy shows, the cost to public is enormous.