Letter to the editor: Reject SF159, ‘a step in the wrong direction’

The teaching career of Lucille started in 1911 and illustrated Iowa's basic division between public and private education.

To the editor:

The proposals in SF159, allocating public tax dollars to private and charter schools, got me thinking about Iowa’s proud reputation as a leader in public education. Often when an area was settled, a church and a school were the first buildings to be established. But they were separate. Tax dollars supported the public schools. Families’ own, private contributions supported the church, “and never the twain shall meet.”

A story in my family history illustrates this. My maternal grandmother was born in Dubuque County in 1895. She was an excellent student, graduating from high school and earning her teaching license at age 16. Lucille began her teaching career at a public country school near Holy Cross, Iowa: riding a horse to school, starting the fire in the wood stove and teaching all subjects to students of all ages – some of them older than she was!

Lucille loved teaching, and the students and their families loved her. In her second year, all of the students were Catholic, as was she. The local directors of the school (the parents) asked her whether she would also teach catechism to their children, after the school day had ended, so that the children could be home on Saturdays to help with family chores. She was happy to do so.

However, when the county school administrators learned of this, they saw a problem: teaching catechism in a public school building violated the separation of church and state. They immediately made Lucille stop teaching catechism – and furthermore, they banned her from teaching public school anywhere in Dubuque County for one year!

Let’s consider that for a moment: she was willing to teach religious education because the parents made that choice. There was not an issue with diversity or political correctness in the student body – all the families were in agreement. Yet the county school board could see that the principles of public education had been violated. The school was built and maintained by public funds and was not to be used for private religious education.

This was surely a difficult decision for the school board and a big disappointment to those parents: they had to make other arrangements for catechism again, and their beloved public school teacher was taken away. Quite possibly those school board members were concerned about losing the next election or upsetting their neighbors – but they stood by their principles and did the right thing.

That principle, the separation of church and state, is just as important today. Yet SF159 proposes to use tax dollars to pay for religious education in the name of parental choice, in violation of that principle. It’s not right.

And now for the rest of the story:

As a young teacher, Lucille was devastated by the board’s decision. What was she to do? It turned out that her local priest, Father McCullough, had just arrived from a parish in Allamakee County, about 100 miles north of Dubuque. Father McCullough referred her to an opening in a school there, and she was hired. She taught in Allamakee County for one year, then returned to Dubuque County.

But she didn’t leave Allamakee County for good. During her one year of teaching there, she met a young farmer. Their love for each other grew over the next 12 years — mostly through letters! — until they married in 1925, and she joined him on his farm near Dorchester.

Allamakee County is rugged and scenic, but it’s not very productive agriculturally. Between the tree-covered bluffs and the flood-prone river bottom, I don’t know how they made a living on that farm. There was never any extra money. However, my grandparents were devout Catholics, and their faith was a priority.

Their six children all attended St. Patrick’s High School in Waukon, which was 14 miles away on a rough gravel road. Not only did my grandparents scrimp to pay the tuition at St. Pat’s, they also paid $1.25 for each child, each week, to ride the public school bus which was taking the neighbor kids to the public high school in Waukon. That’s about $23 for each child, each week, in today’s dollars, just for the bus ride.

It was a sacrifice, but one that they chose to make. They did not expect their neighbors to pay for their choice of Catholic school. And they did not harbor ill will against the public school system – in fact, Lucille even returned to teaching in the public schools in 1946.

This all makes today’s debate about school funding very personal to me. I’m proud of my family’s religious heritage and commitment. I’m equally proud of Iowa’s commitment to offering a public education to all students and its recognition of the important principle separating church and state. SF159 is a step in the wrong direction, and it should be rejected by the Iowa legislature.

Karen Varley


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