SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (KELO) — Supporters will say Iowans need more education choices while opponents will say choice already exists and taxpayer money should not pay for it.

A bill that would provide $7,598 in an education account that would allow parents to use it for tuition and other costs at Iowa schools is the Iowa Legislature. It’s a proposal from Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds that has already passed through a Senate subcommittee.

Mike Beranek, president of the Iowa State Education Association (ISEA), said using tax money for private education undermines the foundation of public education and society’s responsibility to provide an equitable education for students.

“This year’s plan has included a larger sum of money than what has been proposed in the past. Over the course of the next four years there will be almost $1 billion directed to private institutions in new money using tax dollars,” Beranek said.

Trish Wilger, the executive director of the Iowa Alliance for Choice in Education, said Reynolds’ proposal gives families an option to choose a private school. “It gives them the option to cover tuition and other qualified expenses,” Wilger said.

And, the group is especially supportive because the first round of funding is geared toward students of lower income and working-class families, Wilger said.

The first year would provide $7,598 per student to families who earn up to 300% of the federal poverty level. The 300% poverty level for a four-person household in 2022 is $83,250, according to the federal Health and Human Services. The next year the level is 400% of the federal poverty level. The 2022 400% poverty level for a household of four is $111,000.

There is not an income level for the third year.

Beranek said families do have options in Iowa including open enrolling a student to another public school. And taxpayer money should not be used to pay for a parent who chooses a private school.

According to data from the Iowa Department of Education, 41 of the state’s 99 counties have no private school. And 23 have one private school. Most of those private schools are religiously based and designate themselves Catholic schools or Christian schools.

Although supporters say the tax voucher option would help parents afford a private school, private schools are not obligated to accept all applicants.

State data shows that most students in private schools in Iowa are white.

Wilger said there are “quite a few” private schools with a diverse socio-economic student makeup. Wilger named Holy Family in the Des Moines area as one example.

The $7,598 would stay with the student each year until the student graduates or completes high school or turns 20, whichever qualifies. Reynold’s proposal estimates that  Iowa’s public schools will retain about $1,202 per pupil in categorical funding for each student who attends private school. 

The first year of funding the proposed program would cost an estimated $107 million a year and in the fourth year at fully implemented, it would cost an estimated $341 million a year. By the end of four years, it would cost an estimated $918 million, according to multiple media reports.

While Wilger and other supporters say the program would give new parents more choices in private schools, Wilger also said the majority of students in the state would remain in public schools. She also said the majority of the program money would go toward students who are already enrolled in private school.

Wilger said the costs of operating a private school, such as a Catholic school, have increased over the years. The scenario is not the same as 10 or 20 years ago as, for example, Catholic schools have fewer priests and nuns, she said.

It’s more difficult for parents with three or four students to pay for private school costs, Wilger said.

And private schools have been saving taxpayers money for years, she said.

Private funding at the risk of rural schools?

Sioux County in northwestern Iowa has at least six private schools. Osceola has none.

Beranek said if the state funnels taxpayer money to private schools, it will hurt rural schools in particular. If the state falls behind in public school funding it will make it harder for smaller, rural schools to operate programs and it will be tougher to recruit and retain staff, he said.

Wilger said it will only be a small amount of students that will transfer, including in rural schools.

If there is no private school in a rural county, parents in rural areas may have online options or a home-school option, Wilger said.