May 17, 2023 - Education

Iowa's private schools dash for public cash

School bus with money

Illustration: Rebecca Zisser/Axios

Iowa this month begins accepting the first applications from parents seeking to use the state's nearly $7,600 per-pupil annual funding for private school education.

Why it matters: It marks the beginning of a new era that's already changing Iowa's education system.

  • Some private schools, including those run by the Diocese of Des Moines, have announced tuition hikes to become more competitive with staff pay and classroom programming.

Meanwhile, others like Maharishi School in Fairfield are asking staffers with children in the school to apply even though they already receive tuition remission.

Catch up fast: Iowa joins at least 16 other states that offer some type of private school voucher program in the upcoming school year.

  • It'll be phased in over three years, costing the state government an estimated $345 million annually for 20,000 students by the fiscal year beginning in July 2025.

State of play: Webinars on the application process begin next week.

What they're saying: The American Federation of Children (AFC), a Washington, D.C.-based group that lobbies for private school vouchers, says parents can now choose the best educational options for their kids regardless of their income or their ZIP code.

  • "This is a momentous occasion for Iowa families," a spokesperson said in a statement.

The other side: Taxpayer money will subsidize an industry currently paid by the private sector. And it's likely at a long-term cost to public districts, Joshua Cowen, a professor at Michigan State University who has studied the voucher programs for about two decades, tells Axios.

  • Most vouchers in other states went to students who would have gone to private school anyway. The Maharishi School's directive shows an example of it at work, Cowen says.
  • Maharishi officials did not return Axios' request for comment.

Of note: Iowa will provide public schools with $1,205 for each student within their district who receives a voucher.

Yes, but: That likely won't backfill a district's total losses, Margaret Buckton, executive director of Urban Education Network, tells Axios.

  • By factoring revenue beyond the state's per-pupil allocation, her group estimates each student loss is equivalent to $11,313.
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