Staff Columnist

Public funds intended for public good

Glue in the school supplies area at the Cedar Rapids North Target in Cedar Rapids on Thursday, Aug. 3, 2017. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)
Glue in the school supplies area at the Cedar Rapids North Target in Cedar Rapids on Thursday, Aug. 3, 2017. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)

If you don’t want to obey government’s rules, don’t accept government’s money.

Iowa lawmakers decided this week to reconsider funneling taxpayer funds to private education. Senate Study Bill 3206, which advanced out of an appropriations subcommittee, creates an “education savings grants” program that would give private school families 60 percent of per-pupil funding allotment now received by public schools. It roughly translates to $4,000 in taxpayer funding for each private school student.

But as the advocacy group One Iowa noted, there are discrimination concerns when public money is used to support private interests.

“The number of private K-12 schools in this state with discriminatory policies directly targeting LGBTQ students and staff is staggering,” director Daniel Hoffman-Zinnel said.

Research of private school policies by One Iowa shows 45 percent of private K-12 schools in the Hawkeye State either explicitly discriminate or reserve the right to discriminate based on sexual orientation.

“Our research revealed that 97 percent of Iowa private K-12 schools are religiously affiliated, and these institutions have the right to conduct business according to their beliefs,” he added. “However, they cannot receive taxpayer dollars and continue to be allowed to discriminate.”

And it isn’t only sexual orientation. The section of the Iowa Code encompassing civil rights provides several areas in which “educational institutions” are prohibited from discriminating. These include race, creed, color, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, national origin, religion, or disability in any program or activities. But the code also carves out exemptions for religious facilities: “Nothing in this section shall be construed as prohibiting any bona fide religious institution from imposing qualifications based on religion, sexual orientation, or gender identity when such qualifications are related to a bona fide religious purpose or any institution from admitting students of only one sex.”

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In other words, if the affiliated church doctrine prohibits homosexuality, school policies can prohibit acceptance of gay students or hiring of gay instructors — or those who adhere to a different religious belief. Discrimination is tolerated in a nod to religious freedom, and an understanding that only the like-minded are supporting the private educational enterprise. But publicly funded education allows no such exemptions — we’re all paying for it; we all have and deserve an opportunity to access it.

Government puts conditions on what it funds because the government is trying to be fair to everyone in society — believers and nonbelievers, gay or straight, rich or poor. There’s also the pesky Constitution, which requires government to not promote any religious belief above another. And, frankly, any group that’s willing to stand with its hand out needs to abide by the same rules.

If a private school wants to hire or teach only people that think or behave in a certain way, it’s free to do so as long as it isn’t expecting you and me to subsidize its discriminatory practices.

Public funds, however, are intended for the public good.

• Comments: @LyndaIowa, (319) 368-8513, lynda.waddington@thegazette.com

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