The COVID-19 pandemic is changing the discussion over education delivery in Iowa. Many Iowa parents are struggling with their children learning from home or balancing a hybrid system of in-school and online learning. In addition, many children are being impacted by the “COVID slide” and are falling behind academically. This has led to a growing call for more parental choice in education. Open enrollment is one avenue for parental choice in Iowa education, but some school districts in Iowa have created roadblocks making it more difficult for parents to enroll their children in another district. 


Parental or school choice is often defined as a student switching from a public school to a private or homeschool alternative. However, what is forgotten is the fact that open enrollment is an important tool that Iowa parents can take advantage of to provide their children with a better quality of education. 


Governor Kim Reynolds in her Condition of the State Address outlined a bold education choice reform plan, which also called for “making open enrollment available in all districts.” “School choice shouldn’t be limited to those who have the financial means or are lucky to live in a district that’s confident enough to allow open enrollment. So, let’s make choice an option for everyone,” stated Governor Reynolds.


One hurdle to open enrollment are voluntary diversity plans. These plans are an instrument currently used by five Iowa school districts to regulate open enrollment. Davenport, Des Moines, Postville, Waterloo, and West Liberty school districts have voluntary diversity plans in place. The objective of voluntary diversity plans is to maintain a diverse balance of students within each district by regulating the number of students who can enroll in and out of the district. 


As a result of a United States Supreme Court ruling in Parents Involved in Community Schools V. Seattle School District No. 1, race cannot be used as a factor, but districts can use other metrics such as socioeconomic status and the percentage of students who are eligible for free and reduced meals. Along with socioeconomic factors, districts can take into consideration other student concerns such as health, safety, the percentage of English learners, among others. If a student is denied open enrollment as a result of the voluntary diversity plan, the parent can challenge the decision in Iowa district court. 


The five districts with voluntary diversity plans tend to have higher percentages of families that are in poverty and receiving free or reduced lunches as well as other benefits such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). Defenders of voluntary diversity plans argue any repeal would lead to these districts being re-segregated and a flight of wealthier families from the district. 


Parents of children who are above the poverty guidelines may have a more difficult time seeking to open enroll in another district as a result of voluntary diversity plans. Various reasons may exist for why a parent may wish to place their child in another school district. This could be for academic, health, or even safety reasons if the child is subjected to bullying or harassment. 


The Des Moines Register shared a story of a single mother who tried to open enroll her child out of the Des Moines school district as a result of sliding academic progress. However, her child was denied because they earned too much money. In efforts to provide her child with a better education, she was forced to take out a loan to pay for private school. This is just one example of how the voluntary diversity plan created a roadblock for a parent whose top concern was finding the best possible education for their child. 

In previous sessions, the Iowa legislature has tried to repeal voluntary diversity plans. Iowa students in these five school districts should have the same open enrollment opportunities as students in other districts. 


“Open enrollment in Iowa should BE open enrollment. Five school districts should not be allowed to prevent open enrollment when every other district in Iowa cannot do the same,” argued state Senator Amy Sinclair, who currently chairs the Education Committee. 


Allowing parents to have greater choice for their children’s education is paramount. Socioeconomic or other factors should not prevent a child from receiving the best possible education. Open enrollment is a basic form of school choice and districts should not be afraid of greater competition within education. “When schools must compete to attract and retain students, their offerings generally get better, as do their outcomes, wrote John Hood, who serves as chairman of the John Locke Foundation.


Parents should be empowered with all possible options to help provide their children with the best quality of education. It is time to remove the barriers in education and place parents and kids first. 


John Hendrickson is the Policy Director at TEF Iowa.