February 27, 2024


Opponents point to separation of church and state, funding inconsistencies

Editor’s Note: This is the second of a two-part series on the school choice bill currently being proposed at the Iowa Legislature.


Michelle Smith, chairperson of the Jasper County Democratic Party, spoke up during the Zoom call with Rep. Jon Dunwell and Rep. Henry Stone, saying she does not want any money to pay for religious education whatsoever. The United States of America was founded on religious freedom, she added.

“I don’t care whether it’s preschool, whether it’s college, whatever — I want no taxpayer money to be paying for anything religious,” Smith said. “It is everybody’s choice to believe what they believe. It is not my choice to pay for it.”

While not all private schools are religious, Dunwell agreed a good number are. Stone argued taxpayer money is already being used in two different areas for private schools: private pre-K education and also private college educations. The mechanism, he added, already exists and is used by institutions in Iowa.

Smith said, “Then I would introduce a bill to strip it then. Like money no Central, no money for Wartburg. Because they are religious institutes. And it has nothing to do with me having faith, not having faith. It has to do with there is that separation, and I do not want to fund anything that has a religious (aspect).”

From a legal aspect, Dunwell said as long as the state is not picking the institution or getting behind a particular institution and it’s at the control of the parents as to where those dollars go, then “it’s not really a violation of what you would call the separation of church and state.”


The Iowa Association of School Boards (IASB) lobbies on behalf of the Newton Community School District and many other school districts across the state. IASB is critical of Gov. Kim Reynolds’ proposal. The new freedom for districts to use certain categorial funds, IASB says, were already granted to schools in 2017.

Iowa Code already allows districts to create a flexibility account where ending fund balances in preschool, the home school assistance program, teacher leadership supplemental program and professional development can be deposited and use for any general fund purposes.

IASB said the only change in this bill is adding talented and gifted funds to the list of funds that can be transferred to the flexibility account.

Also criticized was the use of “phantom students” to account for school funding. With each school district receiving $1,205 for every nonpublic school-enrolled student in their district, IASB said this does not make districts whole and can help some districts at the expense of others.

According to certified enrollment data from the Iowa Department of Education, there are more than 33,000 students in enrolled in private schools. IASB said the student resident districts would collectively receive $39.8 million. Out of the 327 school districts in Iowa, 239 do not have a private school within their borders.

Of the 99 counties in Iowa, 40 do not have a private school within their border.

Losing one student in each grade to a private school does not reduce a district’s expenditures, but IASB says it does reduce the funds available to pay for those expenditures. Districts have to hire the same number of teachers, provide the same amount of programing and cover the same transportation, utility and building costs.

Every student who leaves a public school, IASB says, reduces a district’s funding by $7,598. The state is going to give back $1,205 for each student lost, leaving out $6,393 in revenue to cover the same expenditures they incurred when the student left.

The cost of the proposal is estimated to cost $918 million over four years.

Christopher Braunschweig

Christopher Braunschweig

Christopher Braunschweig has a strong passion for community journalism and covers city council, school board, politics and general news in Newton, Iowa and Jasper County.