The choice of school empowers families; no harm in public schools

  • Trish Wilger is executive director of the Iowa Alliance for Choice in Education.

The Student First Scholarships offered by Governor Kim Reynolds will allow parents to make the best choice for their child’s education. Every child should have access to an education that best suits their needs. The introduction of the Education Savings Accounts, or ESA, program will open doors for young people in Iowa and remove income or zip code limits.

Opposition to an ESA program, specifically outlined on May 1 by the editorial board of the Des Moines Register, claims that this program “will provide more than $55 million or more to private school coffers.” This statement does not at all reflect the true nature of the program.

Total spending on K-12 public education in Iowa was $5.7 billion in fiscal year 2020, 90% of which came from state and local funding, with the rest from from federal sources. This breaks down to an average of $9,824 per student provided by Iowa taxpayers. $6,620 of this state funding and the remaining $3,204 comes from local property taxes.

If the ESA program is established, eligible families would receive 70% of the state’s per-pupil spending, currently about $5,400, for qualifying education expenses. To be eligible, students must be incoming kindergartners or transfer students from a public school with a household income below 400% of the federal poverty level, or be transfer students from a public school with a Individualized Education Program, or IEP. There is no new allocation of $55 million; these are children who would have been educated in the public system. In fact, the amount of the ESA is less than what would have been spent on these students if they had been educated in the public system, so there is a saving for the State.

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Contrary to what some might believe, this program will not have a detrimental effect on public schools. If a student leaves the public school system to attend a private school, the public school will no longer assume the cost of the student’s education and 30% of the funding per student will be reinjected into the public school system. It is not a zero-sum game. It’s not about public schools versus private schools. It’s about providing the best educational options for our young people in Iowa.

No funding is going to a private school under this proposal; the funding goes to parents to make a choice in the best interest of their children. If a child’s educational needs are not being met, why would we want to limit their ability to find a better option?

A student’s education should not be limited by zip code or income level. ESAs will remove these barriers and allow parents to choose an education option that best suits the needs of their children.

As the editorial board of the Des Moines Register points out, ensuring an adequate education for all children is part of our social compact. I couldn’t agree more. That’s why it’s imperative that state legislators come together to implement school choice for parents.

Trish Wilger is executive director of the Iowa Alliance for Choice in Education.

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