How much public money goes to support private schools in Iowa?

Editor’s note: This story has been changed to reflect that the Tuition and Textbook Tax Credit also goes to public school families.

Iowa has spent millions in public money to support private schools and home school programs since 2008, according to a Register analysis of state data.

The state’s annual spending on nonpublic education grew 53 percent in that time and totaled at least $37.1 million in 2018, according to data from the Legislative Services Agency.

“There’s been a trend to slowly put some dollars towards people who are choosing different options,” said state Rep. Walt Rogers, R-Cedar Falls, chairman of the House Education Committee. “I would say that that’s a good thing. We want to give as many options for parents and students as we possibly can.”

But Mike Beranek, the newly elected president of the Iowa teachers union, says state money that goes to private education hurts public schools.

“Any increase they receive would come out of the coffers that would be set aside for public schools. We don’t understand why you would be taking money” away from public schools, he said.

The Register began reviewing public funding of private schools last month after Polk County officials came under fire for funneling $844,000 to nine Catholic schools and one Christian academy in 2012 and 2013.

While a different set of circumstances than state funding, which is approved by state legislators, that move is indicative of a wider trend to support private schools.

State money is not directly pocketed by private schools, the Register’s review found, but public money does support private-school operations through busing assistance, textbook purchases, special education funding and scholarship support.

The state also offers a tax credit for those paying private-school tuition.

The average annual private-school tuition was $3,700 in 2016, according to an Iowa Department of Revenue study.

However, private tuition remains out of reach for many. And while it may be an option for some students, public-school advocates say the state should focus on funding those schools, which are required to serve all children.

► RELATED:State funding for public schools for the 2018-19 school year

What state support is offered?

State lawmakers have directed public money to support private-school students since at least the 1980s.

The money supports private, religious and home schooling in various ways. It totaled $37.1 million during the 2017-18 school year, including:

  • $12 million for tax credits that incentivize donations for scholarships
  • $10.6 million to fund voluntary home-school programs
  • $8.2 million in private-school transportation support
  • $4 million in special education and other services
  • $1.6 million for part-time public schooling
  • $650,000 in textbook purchases for private schools

Support through scholarship tax credit

Iowa offers a tax credit for donations that are used for private school scholarships.

It’s one of 18 states that have a scholarship tax credit program, according to an Iowa Department of Revenue study published in 2017.

About 10,700 students a year receive scholarships to attend private schools in Iowa, according to the study. Scholarship amounts vary depending on family income. The average scholarship is $1,800.

The tax credit program has grown from $4.9 million in 2008 to $12 million last year. It has awarded $99 million in credits since 2008.

Lawmakers set aside $13 million per year for the tax credit program during the last session.

► RELATED: Iowa could expand tax credit program that benefits private schools

Support for home schooling

Home-school assistance programs are voluntary programs for both students and school districts.

Programs pair families with a teacher to provide instructional supervision while they are home-schooled. Programs can also provide field trips and other resources.

The state spent $10.6 million on the program in 2018, up from $8.4 million in 2010. The state has spent $82 million on home-school support since 2010.

Support through school busing

Students who attend a private school are still entitled to school busing under state law. The state reimburses private schools for the cost of transporting students.

Lawmakers have shifted some responsibility to school districts; instead of reimbursing the cost at 100 percent, as in previous years, the state now reimburses private schools at 79.5 percent.

That means for every $1,000 spent on busing a private school student, the district receives $795 from the state and must make up the $205 difference out of their own budget, according to the Legislative Services Agency

The state spent $8.2 million to reimburse districts in 2018, down from $8.6 million in 2008.

Iowa has spent $87.5 million in the past decade to transport private-school students.

Support through services

The state helps pay for private-school students who receive services through one of Iowa’s Area Education Agencies, or who enroll in public schools on a part-time basis.

The state spent $4 million on those support services in 2018, up from $3.3 million in 2008. It’s spent $39.4 million on the program since 2008.

Support through public-school classes

The state pays for private-school students who enroll part-time in public schools. For example, students might take electives at a public school but other classes at a private school. Money flows through the state’s per-student school funding formula.

The state spends about $1.6 million per year on the program. It’s spent $15.7 million since 2008.

Support through textbooks

More than 33,000 private-school students benefited last school year from textbooks and other classroom material paid for through state dollars.

Iowa law requires that certain textbooks be made available to private-school students.

Dowling Catholic received the most textbook support of any private-school in Iowa last year, nearly $27,000.

Since 2008, the state has spent $6.9 million to buy textbooks for private schools. It spent $650,000 overall in 2018.

Des Moines-area private schools received $114,380 worth of textbooks and other materials paid for through state funding, according to Iowa Department of Education data.

All of the schools are religiously affiliated except for Bergman Academy.

The textbooks benefited more than 6,000 private-school students in the metro.

► SEARCH YOUR SCHOOL: Public funding for private school textbooks in Iowa

Private school textbook aid

The following 15 Des Moines-metro private schools received state money to purchase textbooks for students in 2018:

  1. Dowling Catholic High School, 1,380 students: $26,987
  2. Des Moines Christian School, 892 students: $17,444
  3. St. Francis of Assisi School, 628 students: $12,281
  4. Sacred Heart School, 481 students: $9,406
  5. Holy Trinity School, 423 students: $8,272
  6. Grandview Christian School, 352 students: $6,884
  7. St. Anthony School, 325 students: $6,356
  8. Ankeny Christian Academy Elementary, 287 students: $5,612
  9. St. Augustin School, 277 students: $5,417
  10. Bergman Academy, 252 students: $4,928
  11. St. Theresa School, 247 students: $4,830
  12. Holy Family School, 208 students: $4,068
  13. Christ The King School, 201 students: $3,931
  14. Iowa Christian Academy, 147 students: $2,875
  15. Mt. Olive Lutheran School, 101 students: $1,975

Support through tuition tax credits

Iowa also offers support to private school families through the Tuition and Textbook Tax Credit. It allows parents to write off a portion of tuition and textbook expenses on their state income taxes as long as the money goes to an accredited K-12 Iowa school. Home schooling expenses do not qualify for the tax credit.

The tax credit is used by public and private school families with expenses such as registration or notebooks and folders. Iowa does not track how much of the tax credit goes to private school families.

The tax credit diverted roughly $15.5 million from state coffers in 2018 and $168 million since 2008.

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