The annual political battle over public school funding is unusually heated this year in Iowa, not only because of the pandemic, but as a result of  Governor Kim Reynolds’ recent proposal to expand public support for private and religious schools.

The Senate approved legislation (Senate File 159) last month to pay for scholarships for students who move out of underperforming school districts to a nonpublic school, among other provisions.

Titled “The Students First Act,” the bill still needs approval from the Iowa House if it is to become law.

While the effect on a majority of schools in the Jackson County and eastern Iowa area under the new bill is not known at this time, there is at least one unique situation – Bellevue, which may be the smallest town in the state of Iowa to have two full K-12 schools, one public and one private – Bellevue Community Schools and Marquette Catholic.

While Bellevue Community Schools is not considered an underperforming school, and the effect of the new legislation on the local public school (if passed) is uncertain, Bellevue Superintendent Tom Meyer has been objecting to the proposed legislation, posting objections on social media, sending emails to the Iowa House and writing editorials in the Bellevue Herald-Leader.

“At this time the proposed legislation would not impact the Bellevue Community School District, as we are not an identified ‘failing school’ in the state. A more important part is that by utilizing public funds for private purposes, it creates a lot of other questions,” said Meyer. “Simply put, public funds are designed to go for public purposes in the state of Iowa, and not to private entities.”

“This is not about Bellevue, but the state overall, and its funding for public schools,” he added.

Meyer said that while there may be a small amount of funds in the bill right now, history shows that that amount will most certainly grow in the future and have ‘a much larger and more detrimental impact’ on the state and state tax dollars.

“The amount of money given to private schools already by Iowa taxpayers is $60 to 70 million a year. This is a concern. This includes plans to pay for PK-12 private school tuition, state appropriations for transportation and textbook vouchers for private schools, and much more are already in place to support non-public schools. This includes approximately $100,000 per year from our district to the nonpublic school here,” said Meyer, who noted that public schools are also required to follow a state-regulated budgetary process for the expenditure of all dollars, while non-public schools are not held to the same public accountability standards.

“Public schools are provided oversight by locally elected school boards and by the state of Iowa. Public schools must adhere to strict state testing requirements and ensure equitable access and outcomes for each learner regardless of income, race, religion, nationality, sexual orientation, or disability. Nonpublic schools are not held to the same standards.  Iowa taxpayers deserve to know how their public funds are being used. This entire bill in both branches, but especially the Senate, was rushed through with little public input. That is also concerning.”

While some educational programs, sports, activities and bus routes have been shared over the years, the two K-12 schools in Bellevue have been vying for student enrollment for many generations. Bellevue currently has about 680 students, while the private parochial school, Marquette, has about 120.

During several school years in the 1960s and ‘70s, Marquette Catholic’s high school enrollment numbers were actually larger than the public school’s enrollment, but that trend has since been reversed.

Geoffrey Kaiser, principal of Marquette Catholic, welcomes the idea that parents can have a choice of where to enroll their children.

"As a teacher and administrator that has worked in a school with similar programs in Milwaukee, I have witnessed, firsthand the immediate benefit for families who had the opportunity to choose where their children would be educated,” said Kaiser. “I would personally support legislation that has the potential to break down barriers that might prevent students from going to the school that best meets their child's individual educational needs."

Meyer, however, said that asking for more funds for private organizations is unacceptable, especially when public school alternatives already exist across the entire state and nation. He says that private and parochial schools are already receiving a lot of taxpayer funding, but most people just aren’t aware of it. He added that school choice is already an option.

“School choice also already exists in Iowa in the form of open enrollment, enrollment in private online institutions, tuition tax credits and school tuition organization scholarships for families below 400% of the federal poverty level,” said Meyer.

He said that the argument that ‘competition is good’ is misleading from his perspective.

 “Competition is good as we continually look to improve. Businesses, schools, teams, and other groups and individuals are always looking to improve, and competition can make you work harder,” said Meyer. “But, schools of all kinds work hard regardless to be the best not only in their community or area, but also in the state, nation, and beyond. We look to compete with the best schools in Iowa and nationally on a daily basis by integrating programming to most effectively meet the needs of our students.”

“Private and public schools do not ‘play on the same field in so many ways, and this would only enlarge this differential and equity for students and families. This would not be temporary as some private organizations are getting assistance now based on COVID (and rightfully so based on the pandemic and its impact), but instead would be permanent and detrimental to the foundation of the history of education...public schools,” he concluded.

Newly-elected District 58 Reprentative Steve Bradley, differs a bit in his take on the bill. He argues that the scope of the proposed scholarship program is targeted and narrow, and is available only for children in one of Iowa’s failing public schools.

“The Students First Act has the potential to elevate the quality of all Iowa schools,” said Bradley. “There are a lot of different aspects to this bill that we will be discussing this session. It is also important to ensure that we are properly funding and supporting our public schools. All bills that come from the Governor's office will be properly vetted prior to seeing any action on the House floor.”

The bill, parts of which have long been Republican legislative priorities, has proven controversial in many parts of the state. Democrats who oppose the bill have accused supporters of siphoning money away from public schools to private and religious schools and supporting a return to school segregation.

Supporters emphasized the need to assist students trapped in schools that are either “failing” or are giving students no in-person attendance options during the pandemic.

According to reports from the Iowa Capitol Dispatch, Iowa Senator Chuck Grassley and Governor Reynolds both indicated last week that Republicans in the House are not ready to endorse all parts of the expansive bill. Both cited “spin” or “misinformation” that has accompanied the controversial proposal, without citing what information has been misleading.

“We’ve already devoted some time to the governor’s bill, just so all the members understand because I think there’s a lot of a lot of spin from all sides on this,” Grassley said. “So we’ve been trying to just get an understanding of what the bill looks like and what the bill actually does.”