Sheldon Christian School

A bill in the Iowa Legislature would provide public funds for private educators, such as Sheldon Christian School, sparking debate about separation of church and state.

SHELDON—Sheldon educators are adjusting after the Iowa Senate passed a bill on Jan. 28 that would establish a statewide voucher program to provide financial aid for families wishing to enroll in a private school.

Sheldon School District Superintendent Cory Myer said the bill does not achieve the goals that Gov. Kim Reynolds laid out, including choice and competition, in her Condition of the State address on Jan. 12.

“It is not a question of school choice as open enrollment in the state of Iowa already exists,” Myer said. “Students are allowed to go to the school of their choice and the money already follows them to that public school.”

Sheldon Christian School administrator Marlin Schoonhoven said that he supports the state facilitating more options, but took issue with how funds will be transferred. He said he prefers money to be given directly to families to spend on their preferred institution, instead of money going to private entities.

“The parents are the primary caregiver, and we think public policy should reflect that,” Schoonhoven said.

After the party-line vote in the Republican-controlled Senate, the bill moves to the Iowa House of Representatives, where the GOP also holds a majority. In her address, Reynolds said that some caregivers feel restricted because not every district allows open enrollment.

“School choice isn’t a zero-sum game. It has the potential to raise the quality for all schools,” the governor said.

Schoonhoven also said that the issue is not a “zero-sum game” and that the bill could lead to improved academics in both sectors. Competition makes everyone better, he said, and that families will be the ultimate judges of what system is best suited for them.

Myer said such rhetoric does not help the districts that already are struggling to fund high-achieving instruction, and that the bill opens the door to more private subsidies over time.

“Everyone knows this is just a ploy to get the voucher movement moving and the long-term financial cost will be significantly higher,” Myer said.

Schoonhoven said he supports public schools and that it is “awesome” that the majority of community families will choose the public option.

“I don’t think it’s the case with one institution winning over another institution,” he said. “Everywhere this sort of program is instituted across the nation, they’re making sure the student wins. All ships can rise.”

Myer objected to that sort of analogy, reasoning that the bill would create a competitively unfair market because public education is subject to more standards and oversight.

“As taxpayers, we deserve accountability and transparency, which this voucher bill plainly states will not be required of voucher funds,” he said.

All Sheldon public schools are rated from “acceptable” to “high performing” by the Iowa Department of Education, so the vouchers carry more potential weight out of town. Sibley-Ocheyedan School District superintendent James Craig said the state’s policy direction threatens all districts, even if this particular bill does not target them.

“The concern for us down the road is the millions of dollars not coming to public schools,” Craig said.

Meyer added that the issue is about more than money. In his view, private schools’ selectivity is also problematic.

“The voucher is actually an entitlement program for families deemed worthy of admittance in the eyes of privatized education,” the public administrator said.

Schoonhoven said that he knows that his school’s style and structure is not for all families and students. He said that is why he supports state funds going to parents, so they can make the choice they think is right for them.

“To be honest, every school doesn’t fit every child’s need. The parents will be able to discern that,” he said. “It’s not one against the other. We want to make that clear.”