School choice becomes nationwide conservative priority

Iowa is becoming a leader in school choice legislation as it becomes a nationwide conservative priority.


Margaret Kispert/The Register / USA TODAY NETWORK

Gov. Kim Reynolds high fives House Speaker Pro Tempore John H. Wills, R-District 10 before she signs the House File 68 in the rotunda of the Iowa State Capitol building on Tuesday, Jan. 24, 2023.

Iowa is one of the first GOP-led states in the U.S. to expand access to private K-12 education with state taxpayer funds after Gov. Kim Reynolds signed into law “school choice” legislation on Jan. 24.

Iowa is the newest addition to a growing list of states that have publicly funded Education Savings Accounts that help support private education with almost no limits.

Arizona and West Virginia are the only other states that enacted similar legislation, but the movement is snowballing with almost a dozen other GOP-lead states having introduced similar legislation.

Nine GOP-led states, including Iowa, currently support these initiatives in some way, and seven more states have introduced legislation to achieve this goal.

Reynolds’ flagship legislative priority, the Students First Act, moved quickly through the Iowa House and Senate. It was signed into law three weeks after it was introduced by the governor on the second day of the 2023 legislative session. The bill passed with a slim majority in the Iowa House and Senate, as several Republicans joined Democrats in opposition to the legislation.

After signing the bill into law, Reynolds said the law aims to bring equity to private school access.

“Public schools are the foundation of our education system, and for most families, they will continue to be the option of choice, but they aren’t the only choice,” Reynolds said during the bill signing. “With this bill, every child in Iowa, regardless of zip code or income, will have access to the school best suited for them.”

Opponents of the legislation said the bill would take away money from public schools that aren’t fully funded due to the rising costs of inflation and stagnant growth in state funding. The law is estimated to cost $345 million a year once fully implemented in 2026, according to an analysis by the nonpartisan Legislative Services Agency.

Map by Marandah Mangra-Dutcher/The Daily Iowan

The bill would give $7,600 — roughly what the state spends per pupil in K-12 education — to parents of children who transfer to private schools or already attend private schools to spend on tuition or other education expenses.

There are currently 33,692 private school students who attend 183 private schools in Iowa, according to state Department of Education data. The Legislative Services Agency estimates that roughly 41,600 Educational Savings Accounts will be created by the start of the 2026-27 school year. Most accounts are expected to go to current nonpublic school students, and only around 5,000 accounts would likely be created for public-to-private school transfers.

Dave Daughton, a lobbyist for the School Administrators of Iowa and the Rural School Advocates of Iowa, said failing to fully fund public education will affect Iowa’s schools dramatically.

“And if they’re going to continue to, in effect, shortchange the public school districts, they’re going to continue to struggle,” Daughton said in an interview with The Daily Iowan.

Iowa State Education Association President Mike Beranek said taxpayer dollars should go to public schools because they offer equal access, and private schools are not accountable for the taxpayer dollars they are receiving.

“Make no mistake, this is not a war between public schools and private schools; it is a conflict between how taxpayer money is spent on private schools without equal access and no accountability or taxpayer oversight,” Beranek said in a news release. “Elected officials have a responsibility to serve all the people of our great state. This legislation serves just a few, with all the people’s money.”

Iowa law does not provide oversight of private schools that receive funding from these accounts. Private schools aren’t required to administer state standardized testing or report testing results.

The law does allow school districts to use leftover allocated funding to fund teacher salary increases and training by allowing schools to transfer the designated funds into the district’s general fund balance. Additionally, the bill provides $1,200 in residual funding to a private school student’s home public school district.

Opponents also argued that special education students wouldn’t get this choice in education because of selective admission standards for private schools. Rep. Heather Matson, D-Ankeny, said a student in her district wouldn’t be accepted to private school because of his autism diagnosis.

“There is no choice for him because no private school will accept him because of his disabilities,” Matson said during debate on the House floor late in the evening on Jan. 23. “But Brandon is accepted and has teachers and staff who work hard for him in the Ankeny Community School District.”

School choice picks up steam

Iowa is one of three states that currently have Education Savings Accounts for all private school students, according to Ed Choice, a national school choice advocacy group. Six other GOP-led states have ESA programs with income limits, and a few of those states —  including Missouri — are looking to expand the program.

Currently, 33 states and the territory of Puerto Rico have a private school voucher program, and 35 states have some form of tax credit for private school parents.

However, only two other states have legislation as expansive as Iowa’s law. Arizona enacted legislation last year that designated ESAs to all students attending private school in the state to subsidize tuition and other educational expenses. West Virginia enacted similar legislation in 2021.

Utah lawmakers recently passed legislation providing taxpayer-funded private school scholarships totaling almost $42 million in taxpayer spending on scholarships for roughly 5,000 students.

These programs are a long time coming, with school choice proponents deep in the public taxpayer structure, including the U.S. Department of Education.

Former Education Secretary Betsy Devos championed ESAs during her tenure under the Trump administration. Devos now owns and operates the American Federation for Children, an organization that advocates for public funding for private schools.

“The ‘Washington knows best’ crowd loses their minds over that. They seem to think that the people’s money doesn’t belong to the people,” Devos said in a 2020 speech. “That it instead belongs to ‘the public,’ or rather, what they mean — government.”

Educational Savings Accounts aren’t the only program supporting school choice. School vouchers, which give money directly to parents or schools for private school attendance, have also gained traction in many states. Sixteen states and the territory of Puerto Rico currently operate voucher programs.

‘Public school or nothing’ in rural Iowa

Forty-two of Iowa’s 99 counties have no private school options within the county, although those counties contain 75 percent of Iowa’s public schools, according to Iowa Department of Education data.

Stephen Murley, a University of Iowa education policy researcher and instructor, said this will lead to most students not having the option to attend the state’s 183 private schools.

“When they talk about this being a choice bill and providing choice and opportunity for students, parents, and families, that’s a misnomer,” Murley said in an interview with The Daily Iowan. “It’s a public school or nothing because there are no private schools there.”

Instead, Murley said the bill is going to subsidize private education in the state’s most urban counties. Iowa’s nine most populous counties contain 54 percent of Iowa’s private schools.

“Those kids in the surrounding rural areas of those nine counties and the other 90 rural counties in Iowa will have almost zero choices,” Murley said. “They will not have the option to access these dollars and use them to support their attendance at a private school.”

Bernaek said the bill is taking funding from most of Iowa’s students to give it to the minority who already can afford private education. Iowa has 481,713 public school students who make up 92 percent of Iowa’s K-12 student population, according to state Department of Education data.

“The bill will divert essential funds from 92 percent of our student population and send the funds to just a select population of students admitted into private schools,” Beranek said.

The Department of Education has asked for requests for proposals from companies with experience running ESA programs to apply to administer the state’s program. Current cost estimates do not include the cost of the program’s third-party administration.