The pandemic and remote learning brought many surprises to Iowa parents. Parents heard lessons plans and language that sounded ideologically tinged. They objected to books for elementary school students that were sexually explicit. But local school administrators and school boards were not responsive to their complaints.
Then parents found an answer. They went to Des Moines and demanded action by state legislators and the governor – and got it – in the form of the Students First Act. This law will provide Iowa families with education savings accounts (ESAs) to put toward private school tuition, tutoring, textbooks, curricular materials, and a variety of other education expenses.
Iowa’s ESAs are funded with a portion of the per-pupil spending. They are worth $7,500 a year, more than enough to cover the average Iowa private elementary school tuition of about $4,500. These ESAs come close to covering the average private high school tuition of $9,200.
Two lessons from Iowa stand out as a model for other states to pursue.
First, enacting school choice takes political savvy. According to Fox News reporting, public schools are big employers in rural areas and their administrators have big sway with their local legislators. To pass the Students First Act, Gov. Kim Reynolds had to aggressively lobby for the bill – even to the point of supporting challengers to recalcitrant incumbents.
The second lesson is that supporting widened school choice is a way for parents to address all the aspects they don’t like about public schools. Iowa’s ESAs will support quality private schools, including religious schools, which uphold state standards in education while offering parents a wider array of choices more consistent with their beliefs. And ESAs will have the added benefit, perhaps, of bringing competition that may instill reforms and improvements to public school education.
Exporting this model would work wonders. Today Iowa, maybe Illinois tomorrow?
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