This week is National School Choice week, which brings awareness to the importance of empowering parents to choose the best educational path for their children. To most parents, it is obvious that they should be in control of their child’s education. The problem is, in the collective mind of the education establishment, that is not so obvious.
Remote learning caused by COVID restrictions shed a light into the classroom, affording parents a front-row seat to what was being taught. Many parents disagreed with what they were seeing. Once students returned to in-person learning, districts were taking medical freedoms away through mask mandates. The start of the current school year launched on-going debates about gender issues, bathrooms, and lewd materials on the shelves of school libraries.
In a Virginia gubernatorial debate last fall with the eventual victor, Glenn Youngkin, candidate Terry McAuliffe declared: “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach.” This comment seemed to add a spark to the conflict that was already smoldering across the country. Parents everywhere began to speak up.
As a result, there is a renewed effort nationwide and in Iowa to give parents more of a say about what goes on in our public schools, and more options about where their students attend school. Iowa took several strides in delivering expanded school choice during last year’s legislative session by passing most of the education reforms introduced by Governor Kim Reynolds. The gold standard of parental choice, an Education Savings Account (ESA), remains just out of reach in Iowa, though.
ESAs would allow all parents to spend their child’s share of state educational funding at the public or private school of their choice. Nationwide polling in December showed 81% of school parents support ESAs. Our own polling from earlier in the fall reflected support for ESAs from a majority of Iowans, and with good reason. In addition to finding the right fit for a student’s education, school choice programs have been proven to save considerable taxpayer dollars.
I have been in the school choice fight for years, including serving two legislative sessions as the Chair of the Iowa House Education Committee. During that time, I have heard all the excuses drummed up by the education establishment. One of my favorites was that public dollars shouldn’t go to private entities. That myth is debunked. We already do that with Pell Grants, SNAP, Medicaid, and the Iowa Tuition Grant.
Beyond a discussion about dollars, we need to examine the impact public education is having on Iowa’s students. A recent family I met with is trying to find a way out of their current public school district in Central Iowa. What is driving them away? The junior high’s policy about who can use bathrooms designated for girls. There are very distinct ideas about what should be allowed in our schools. This fact points us to a need for real school choice that acknowledges one size does NOT fit all.
Iowa is fortunate to have Governor Reynolds as a vocal supporter of school choice. As part of her 2021 education legislation, she proposed the creation of ESAs that would have been available to a certain segment of Iowa students. In the interim she became the first governor in the country to sign the Education Freedom Pledge which promotes, among other items, a parent’s right to use taxpayer-funded education dollars on the schooling of their choice. And in her Condition of the State address to kick off 2022’s legislative session, Governor Reynolds outlined a proposal for an even broader ESA program than what she proposed last year.
With a popular governor exploring ways to deliver more choice to Iowa parents, and two legislative chambers that have taken their own steps to do the same, the future for ESAs in Iowa should be bright.
Walt Rogers is deputy director of Iowans for Tax Relief Foundation and a former state representative from Cedar Falls