Opinion | School Choice: A terrible policy with terrible consequences

School choice will make educational attainment worse in the state.


Jerod Ringwald

Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds speaks during a watch party for Iowa Republicans on Election Day at the Hilton Downtown in Des Moines on Nov. 8, 2022.

Shahab Khan, Opinions Columnist

Iowa Republicans’ school choice bill will weaken our education system.

The signature piece of legislation proposed during the opening of the 2023 legislative session would introduce a universal Education Savings Account that parents could open for a child currently enrolled in elementary, middle, or high school. 

The accounts are designed by Iowa Republicans and would allow parents to withdraw up to $7,598 per student in the first year of the bill becoming law. 

By introducing the vouchers to Iowans, state Republicans are attempting to accomplish a signature policy goal of theirs: school choice. 

The rationale behind the school choice argument stems from the philosophy that parents know what is best for their children and, as a result, should have an outsized say in what they are learning in school. In the opinion of school choice advocates, this leads to higher test scores for students enrolled in private schools.

In fact, when giving her Condition of the State address, Gov. Kim Reynolds pointed out that when Florida enacted its school choice system, the standardized test scores for students went up and are now among the highest in the nation. 

However, when one takes a closer look at how Florida achieved those higher test scores, it becomes clear that allowing kids to go to private schools did not actually increase those scores. 

Instead, these test scores increased because many students who are low-income and have disabilities began withdrawing from public schools and enrolling in private schools that had no obligation to report their test scores, unlike public schools. 

In other words, data from Florida is hampered by selection bias, and we do not actually know if private schools are helping improve the educational prospects for their students.  

What we do know is that when school voucher programs similar to the ones proposed in Iowa are enacted, the quality of education suffers. 

The state of Michigan, with the backing of major school choice foundations, proposed a similar plan to the one in Iowa that bolstered the strength of private and charter schools while diverting prospective funds from public schools. 

This led to standardized test scores plummeting within a few years of this policy’s adoption, as Michigan became one of the 10 worst performing states in terms of test scores and educational attainment.  

Investigations found that Michigan private schools that benefited from the voucher program were not equipped to teach their students. Reading and math skills were found to be subpar and lacking. 

The lesson that can be taken from the Michigan experience is that school choice does not actually improve the educational prospects for students and, in some cases, could negatively impact their academic standing. 

This is because education is a public good, and private schools do not have the capabilities to serve the potentially thousands of students that could take advantage of Education Savings Accounts. 

According to the Iowa Department of Education, there are only 33,500 students in private schools in Iowa. This number is small compared to nearly 486,000 students in the public school system. In other words, these private schools do not have the necessary infrastructure to educate Iowa’s children. 

If Reynolds truly cared about bettering education for Iowans, she would look to what states such as Massachusetts and New York have done: Implement statewide standards and increase funds for teacher training and pay even going as far as to reduce student-teacher-ratio in public schools, a major factor in improving education.

These states, which had some of the worst educational systems in the country in the ‘80s and ‘90s, now score among the top. 

Alas, the school choice bill does exactly none of that and will put Iowa on a path synonymous with failure. 

Columns reflect the opinions of the authors and are not necessarily those of the Editorial Board, The Daily Iowan, or other organizations in which the author may be involved.