religious schools

Religious schools in Iowa line pockets with public money


The new voucher law in Iowa — with private schools rushing statewide to significantly hike their tuition — is a textbook case of the greed of religious schools and harm to taxpayers.

Nearly two weeks after the start of Iowa’s legislative session, which began on Jan. 9, and only three business days after the bill was introduced, Gov. Kim Reynolds’ lobbying efforts paid off and she signed into law House File 68, misnamed the “Students First Act.” Despite major bipartisan opposition in the Legislature, and in the face of overwhelming opposition from the public, Reynolds’ cronies took unprecedented measures to rush through the harmful bill.

The law gives hundreds of millions of taxpayer-funded “scholarships” to private (most religious) school students via Education Savings Accounts. This is an innocuous term for what a lot of people call “voucher schemes.” The term “voucher” has started to be phased out because of its (warranted) negative connotations. However, “scheming” is an on-the-nose description for what is taking place in Iowa right now.

The effects of Reynolds’ pet project legislation is already making waves across the state. In a move that could have been spotted from light years away, private schools (which are mostly religious) in Iowa are increasing their fees — some quite substantially. In Dubuque, Holy Family Catholic Schools are raising their tuition 30 percent for non-Catholic students, while Catholic elementary school students from “supporting parishes” will see their tuition increase 40 percent. St. Francis Catholic Schools in Marshalltown held a town hall meeting with parents and potential students to provide information on how families can take advantage of the public money that is being siphoned from public schools to their religiously segregated schools. They plan to raise their tuition incrementally over the next three years, capping out at roughly $7,500 just as the Education Savings Accounts funds become available to everyone to the tune of $7,600. This is a shameless and rapacious money grab to force all citizens to pay the max for religious education.

In accordance with the law, funds that remain in an individual’s Education Savings Account must stay there until the student is no longer eligible to use those funds. When the student becomes ineligible to use the funds, that money is transferred back to the state’s general fund. In short, it does the schools no good if their tuition remains lower than the allotted amount. It is a “use-it-or-lose-it” scheme and religious schools are making sure they do everything in their power not to lose it. For their school to receive the maximum amount allowed by law, they must raise their tuition. 

HF 68 was passed in the name of school choice. It was erroneously touted as a method to assist those who want their children to attend private schools, but did not have the financial means. Even by the governor’s own calculations, the law will only impact about 5,000 students across the state of Iowa who live in close proximity to a private school option. There are 23 Iowa counties with no private school options (although with this giveaway we can expect all kinds of opportunistic private schools to organize in Iowa). The portrayal of this bill being the solution to a lack of school options is a nefarious attempt to mislead by those who wish to dismantle public education and/or prop up Catholic parochial schools that have been bleeding students. (More than 80 percent of private schools in Iowa are religious and over half are Catholic.)

For those who do live in counties with private school options, grant programs already exist to accomplish the goal that HF 68 was purportedly created to achieve. School Tuition Organizations already exist as a neo-voucher scheme to reroute public dollars to religious schools. These entities provide funds as tuition grants to lower-income students to attend one of Iowa’s accredited, nonpublic schools. There are 12 School Tuition Organizations throughout the state of Iowa. To incentivize donating to these organizations, the state of Iowa set aside $20 million in tax credits in 2022 for individuals and entities that contribute to such outfits. Individuals are eligible for a 75 percent tax credit on their donation. Many of the schools eligible for School Tuition Organization funds (for example, Pella Christian Schools as well as Siouxland Christian Schools, who sent two representatives before the committee) testified during the House committee hearing on HF 68 in support of the legislation. In fact, the Diocese of Dubuque, which is overseeing the dramatic increase in tuition at Holy Family Catholic Schools, is an eligible school at which such money can be spent. They all lamented over the potential of losing students who could not pay for their tuition. Now that they’ve gotten their way and the bill has become law, they are showing their true colors; it was never about the students. It has always been about maximizing the amount of public dollars they can siphon off to fund their religious schools.   

Simply stated, the dubiously named “Student First Act” has nothing to do with aiding students. Rather, it has everything to do with dismantling public education in favor of religious schools that use those funds to discriminate and indoctrinate. Of course, the spin on the rapid and radical increase in tuition is that the schools need to pay teachers higher salaries to more closely align with salaries of public school teachers. It is important to keep in mind that in doing this, they are stripping away resources from public school teachers who are already severely underpaid at public schools that are going to be even more understaffed. 

This was all so predictable, and no one was fooled — not the legislators who passed the bill, not the governor who championed the legislation and signed it into law, and most certainly not the proponents of the measure. They all knew exactly what the end goal was: to siphon ever more public funds to erode public school resources in order to prop up private, religious education.

FFRF Action Fund is a 501(c)(4) organization that develops and advocates for legislation, regulations and government programs to preserve the constitutional principle of separation between state and church. It also advocates for the rights and views of nonbelievers, endorses candidates for political office, and publicizes the views of elected officials concerning religious liberty issues.