116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
One of Jennifer Jordebrek’s favorite memories with her children is making rosaries — a prayer necklace — out of Cheerios for a school project.
Her family has spent thousands of dollars to send its three children, from a young age, to Xavier Catholic Schools in Cedar Rapids, prioritizing a faith-based education.
“We appreciate how (faith) is interwoven throughout the entire school day. They start each class with prayer, and before football and basketball games they say the rosary,” Jordebrek said.
She is in favor of Gov. Kim Reynolds’ private school assistance proposal, which would designate millions in public funding every year to help pay for students to attend private schools. Her two oldest sons graduated from Xavier High School and her youngest son, Noah, is a junior there.
Jordebrek and her husband are paying about $7,000 this year for Noah’s education at Xavier High, with the rest subsidized by their parish at St. Ludmila Catholic Church in Cedar Rapids. Jordebrek estimates the family paid up to $12,000 a year when all three of the boys were in the Catholic school system, with the cost fluctuating from year to year and elementary and middle school costing less than high school.
Jordebrek — along with many other private school parents — says the program would give parents more choice in education and help them find a school that best fits the needs of their family. She said it has been “at times a struggle” to put three boys through Catholic school, but “we don’t regret it.”
“We wanted them to be educated in the Catholic faith … As parents, we can use all the help we can get in raising our children,” Jordebrek said.
Reynolds’ proposal would allow parents to set up an education savings account that would receive $7,598 per student from the state — a student’s full per-pupil funding at a public school — that can be used for tuition, supplies and other expenses at a private school.
Reynolds’ office estimates the bill would cost $106.9 million in the first year, and by full implementation in the fourth year, $341 million annually. The nonpartisan Legislative Service Agency has yet to release its own analysis of the proposal.
The state now spends a total of about $3.6 billion annually on PreK-12 education, and public education advocates say it’s not enough. School districts in Iowa have been asking the Legislature for years to approve more aid, but lawmakers have been giving them only about half what they sought. Now, lawmakers are considering approving millions more — but not all of it for public schools.
“I understand where public schools are coming from,” Jordebrek said. “I firmly hope public schools can be fully funded and believe they should be. … There are many wonderful public schools across the state, and I don’t want to see them be negatively impacted.”
Over 1,800 students living within the Cedar Rapids Community School District currently are enrolled in non-public schools, according to the Iowa Department of Education. About 16,000 students attend Cedar Rapids district schools.
This is the second-highest number of students enrolled in non-public schools in any one district after Des Moines Independent Community School District, which has 2,593 students enrolled in non-public schools. The total number of students in Iowa enrolled in non-public schools is 33,692.
Money for public schools ‘a pittance’
Opponents of the education savings account say the legislation would be detrimental to public schools, especially those in rural areas with already strained budgets.
The measure would give public school districts an estimated $1,205 in funding from the state for each student who lives in the district but attends a private school — not only for students who choose to leave for private schools, but students who already are in them.
Opponents say it’s not enough.
Angela Morrison, College Community School District chief financial officer, said the money does little to minimize the impact the education savings accounts could have on public schools. “You’re still losing $7,500” for children who leave, she said.
Calculating the financial impact on districts is difficult and depends on how many students either leave for private schools or who start there in kindergarten.
Using the current numbers for the Cedar Rapids district, for example, the district would get about $2.2 million in new money for the 1,842 students who live in the district but attend private schools. Under that math, the district could lose about 340 students in a single year — taking into account the net loss per student of about $6,385 — to break even with the proposed increase. After that, the district would lose money under the bill.
The Cedar Rapids district has lost about 1,400 students over the last five years, making for an average of 280 students a year. It’s not clear how many of those were students going to private schools, open enrolling in other districts or moving out of the area.
Private schools don’t have to admit students from a lower socioeconomic status — who may not be able to afford private school even with the education savings account — or students with learning disabilities or behavior problems, Morrison said.
“It’s your right to send your student anywhere you want, but it’s the public’s responsibility to make sure we have strong public schools,” College Community Superintendent Doug Wheeler said. “We take all students — we take students that are difficult to help — and we persist with that for 13 years."
Mary Kenyon, whose kids are a junior and a freshman at Iowa City High School, said the extra money is “a pittance” compared with the money private schools could receive.
Iowa already has “great school choice” through open enrollment, Kenyon said. “You can select any public school to attend if you’re not satisfied with the one you’re districted to. I do not support taking taxpayer money and allocating it to private schools.”
Public schools have a “promise to educate every student who comes through their doors no matter their needs,” Kenyon said, while private schools can “cherry pick students.”
Private school placement exams
Chris McCarville, president of Xavier High School, said the school doesn’t admit all students who apply “not because we don’t want to, but because we don’t have the staff in place to do so,” such as special education teachers.
“The answer is never that we don’t want you here. We have conversations with parents and students to make sure on both sides that it’s going to be beneficial.”
Some students who attend Xavier High have Individualized Education Plans — which lay out the special education instruction, supports and services a student needs to thrive in school — or 504 Plans, the formal plans that schools develop to give kids with disabilities the support they need. McCarville said the school partners with local public school districts to accommodate the students’ needs.
Trinity Lutheran School in Cedar Rapids — a school for K-8 with about 250 students, including the early childhood center — has a “screening process” that includes an entrance exam to “make sure there’s students here we can help,” Principal Mark Miller said.
“If we can’t help, we feel like we’re doing them an injustice, such as if we can’t provide some special education needs they might have,” Miller said.
The entrance exam gives helps Trinity Lutheran determine a child’s placement in the school. For example, a family night want its child to be in fourth grade, but the test indicates it might be better for the child to be in third grade. It is not a tool used to turn students away from Trinity Lutheran, Miller said.
Miller also said there are a few — “not very many” — students at the school with Individualized Education Plans or 504 Plans.
Trinity Lutheran also has a “Trinity Plan” for students who need extra help and teachers are available for study hall at the end of the school day, Miller said. “We make adjustments in their (homework) assignments. For example, if a math assignment is 20 problems, it might be adjusted to 10 problems,” Miller said.
‘Losing trust’ in public school
Education is more than about “math and reading scores” to Sara Sievert, whose children attend St. Patrick School in Anamosa, which serves 93 students in grades PreK-6.
“For us, it’s about having that moral compass and having God in their life on a daily basis,” she said.
Mindy Walderbach last year transferred her youngest two children out of Linn-Mar schools and into St. Joseph Catholic School in Marion after losing “a little bit of trust” in the public school administration. Walderbach’s oldest daughter still attends Linn-Mar High School.
“I know my younger children will thrive better in private schools,” Walderbach said.
St. Joseph’s is a part of the Xavier Catholic Schools, a collaboration of PK-12 Catholic schools in the Cedar Rapids and Marion area.
When it comes to paying for private school, Walderbach said families have to take a hard look at their budget and think about “what am I going to give up and is it worth it?”
Jeff Cater had three children attend Xavier Catholic Schools. His daughter later transferred to Kennedy High School in Cedar Rapids to be a part of the swim team.
“I don’t want to think about or add up all the tuition I paid,” Cater said. “I can’t even imagine. Sending our kids there took a lot of sacrifice.
“A lot of families already enrolled in private school have figured out a way to make it work for them financially,” Cater said. The proposed vouchers “will open the door to kids” who previously faced barriers to private school because of tuition, he said.
Even so, he hesitates to support the private school tuition assistance proposal “wholeheartedly,” questioning if it will adversely affect public schools
Keeping public money in public schools
Many parents of children in public schools say they don’t want public dollars going to private schools. They also don’t think private schools will welcome or be able to serve all students and their needs.
Matt and Sarah Weibel’s two children attend Hoover Community School, one of the most diverse schools in Cedar Rapids. Of the 420 students, 75 percent are historically marginalized students and 82 percent are economically disadvantaged and qualify for free or reduced-price lunch.
Already, they are having conversations with their son, Brandon, 11, a fifth-grader, about racism. He’s noticing that his classmates are treated differently because of the color of their skin and asking why, Sarah said.
Their daughter, Elizabeth, 8, a second-grader at Hoover, is a special needs student and receives occupational and speech therapy services through the school. There is “no way” private schools could provide the level of services Elizabeth needs, Sarah said.
When Matt had a “baseball size” brain tumor a few years ago, the school rallied around the family, and the teachers donated gift cards and gas money. The Hoover principal was the first person Sarah told about Matt’s health outside their immediate family.
Although Matt still struggles with daily migraines, extreme weakness and tremors, he began volunteering at the school this year. Earlier this month, he worked one-on-one with kindergartners, helping them recognize letters and their sounds.
Sarah worries what will happen to Hoover’s food pantry, clothing drive and other community resources the school provides to the neighborhood if some money is redirected to private schools.
“Money for public schools needs to stay with public schools,” Matt said.
Eric Hunerdosse, parent to a kindergartner at Hills Elementary in the Iowa City Community School District, also values the diversity his daughter is exposed to at school.
“Is our child interacting with people who speak different languages, have different family dynamics — like two moms or two dads or grandparents who are the primary caregivers — and from different socioeconomic backgrounds?” said Hunerdosse, a former school counselor who now works for Panorama Education, which works with Iowa schools to help educators act on data to improve student outcomes. “That’s something we value as a family.”
Building competitive schools
Scott Drzycimski, leader of a “yes committee” to rally support from voters for a proposed $312 million bond referendum in the Cedar Rapids district, is concerned about students leaving the schools for private education if the bill passes. The district’s general obligation bond issue, if approved, would fund a seven- to 10-year plan to improve secondary schools.
“That’s something the district does need to consider as they’re putting together the (school improvement) plan,” Drzycimski said.
Some supporters of the legislation say it will create good competition between public and private schools and lead to better education for kids. “If that’s the case, our buildings are part of that competition,” Drzycimski said.
Cedar Rapids interim Superintendent Art Sathoff there is a “fundamental concern with taking public tax dollars and using them for private purposes.”
“There will be impacts on public education and the 90 percent of students that are served by public schools because there will be less money available for public schools,” Sathoff said.
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Erin Murphy of The Gazette’s Des Moines Bureau contributed.