Last Thursday, the Iowa Senate took the extraordinary step of passing a bill that included several provisions that empower parents to choose the best education for their child.
We applaud that effort. Many parents have lacked options for far too long and were trapped in a struggling school that was not right for their students.
Iowa has a history with school choice programs. Iowa’s School Tuition Organization (STO) tax credit has helped bolster donations to those organizations to provide scholarships for families who need financial assistance. Donors to STOs receive a 65 percent state income tax credit. The Iowa Alliance for Choice in Education reports that the STO program distributed just under $150 million to students allowing them to afford the school of their choice. Over 10,000 students receive scholarships every year.
According to the Iowa Department of Education, there are 506,656 students enrolled in the state’s public PK-12 schools for the 2000-2021 school year. According to the department, in the 2019-2000 school year, there were 37,042 students enrolled in accredited nonpublic schools.
Almost one-third of those students received a scholarship.
While laudable, the STO tax credit program just scratches the surface for parents who may want another option for their student, but can’t afford that option.
It is time for state dollars to follow students. ESAs provide families to choose from a cafeteria of options. Other aspects of the bill could provide additional options through charter schools and expanding open enrollment.
Our chief complaint about SF 159 is that it does not go far enough. Education Savings Accounts (ESAs) shouldn’t be just reserved for families who have students in one of the 34 schools in Iowa that need assistance under the Every Student Succeeds Act. That is a start, but school choice should be universal.
Gov. Kim Reynolds said in her Condition of the State address, “School choice isn’t a zero-sum game. It has the potential to raise the quality for all schools. And for those schools that do fall behind, it ensures our children don’t fall with them. Let’s work together to make sure every child receives a quality education, regardless of income, and no matter their zip code.”
We agree, which is why we hope the Iowa House expands who qualifies for the ESAs (aka Student First Scholarships) when they take up SF 159. To ensure a quality education for every student, no matter the zip code, the ESA program shouldn’t be limited to students in 34 school districts but include all Iowa students.
Iowa Senate Democrats who spoke about the bill say it defunds public schools. That’s like saying Burger King “defunds” McDonald’s because somebody wanted a Whopper rather than a Big Mac. It is nonsensical but illustrates the monopoly public schools have on Iowa families.
We can’t trap students in a public school to maintain the level of state aid they receive.
State Senator Todd Taylor, D-Cedar Rapids, made the following point during Thursday night’s debate.
“When a nonpublic student is no longer counted in that school district, the funds associated with that student will be automatically deducted from that residence funding,” he said.
Exactly, which would happen anyway; if parents took their student out of school to homeschool or sent their student to a nonpublic school without an ESA, those schools would not get that money because they are no longer teaching them.
Taylor, and other Senate Democrats, literally call for students to be trapped in public schools to not lose funding for public schools. They must really lack faith in the system thinking there would be a mass exodus from public schools. That is unlikely to happen, many, if not most, families will choose public schools. At least it will be their choice.
In their opposition to school choice, Democrats in the Iowa Legislature and public school advocates put systems ahead of students. It is time for that to stop. Students need to come first.