116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
DES MOINES — An infusion of hundreds of millions of dollars every year soon could hit the private school market in Iowa, thanks to a proposed state-funded private school financial assistance package being pushed by Gov. Kim Reynolds and Republican state lawmakers.
That money could have a significant impact on the private school industry in Iowa, which as of the 2022-2023 school year included 183 schools and 33,692 students, according to state education department data. That’s about 7 percent of the 486,476 students in the state’s public schools.
But could that impact be limited in who would benefits? Nearly half of Iowa’s 99 counties — 42 — do not have a private school within their borders. Most of the areas where there are no private schools are in rural areas, with fewer and smaller towns. And many private schools are near or at capacity, and would find it difficult to add students.
The proposal, which likely will be debated this week in the Iowa House and Senate, is to offer state funding to any Iowa student who wishes to attend a private school. The student would receive $7,590 every year to be put toward tuition, textbooks, classroom materials and other types of educational programming expenses.
The program would be open first to new kindergartners, students who didn’t attend a private school the year before and students from low-income families. It would be gradually phased in, becoming available for more private school students until, in the fourth year, it would be available to all K-12 Iowa students.
At full implementation, the governor’s staff has estimated, the program will cost the state more than $340 million annually.
A Republican legislator who chairs the Iowa Senate’s budget committee said lat week he believes that number will actually be higher. The state’s nonpartisan fiscal analysis agency has not yet completed its analysis of and cost projections for the proposal.
Some have suggested the new money pouring into the private school industry could lead to the creation of more private schools.
“Over time, quite possibly,” said Tom Chapman, executive director of the Iowa Catholic Conference, which lobbies state lawmakers on issues that are important to the Catholic bishops in Iowa. “I think, over time as those resources become available for families, there could be expansion.”
Florida’s private school financial assistance program, one of the first in the country, was established in 1999. From the 2000-2001 school year to 2021-22, the number of private schools in Florida has increased 53 percent, according to data from the state’s education department. Private school enrollment has increased 19.3 percent over that same period.
Iowa House Speaker Pat Grassley, a Republican from New Hartford, last week said the creation of expanded or new private schools in the state “is definitely a possibility” under the proposal.
“Obviously, there are some available slots that exist right now, but there could be (more),” Grassley said. “But I also look at that as more competition, creating more choice for parents. So that may be a byproduct. But I don’t think it happens just today. But, over the course of time, I think that’s a real possibility.”
Asked if there’s enough room to accommodate the roughly 14,000 students the governor’s office estimates would be eligible for the program in the first year, Grassley said he expects some private schools may choose to expand and create more slots, while others “like the way that they are.”
“It’s just like in the public school system right now. We have schools that have reached a certain capacity that will only take students that are living within their border, because they’ve reached capacity,” Grassley said. “So I think that’s going to be a conversation that they’ll have to have in each community.”
Trinity Lutheran, a K-8 school in Cedar Rapids that is accredited by the state and the National Lutheran School Association, has about 250 students, including the school’s early childhood center. The school has 32 openings and is exploring options to expand, said Principal Mark Miller.
“We’re running out of room and need more classrooms,” Miller said.
However, Miller said the school would not use money from the educational savings accounts from the proposed legislation to finance a building project. He said he supports the proposal, but that it has “very little to do with the financial benefit.”
“I think there are parents who would like to have their kids in our school because of who we are and how we operate, that are not able to because they can’t afford it,” Miller said.
Tom Barton and Grace King of The Gazette contributed to this report.
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