Iowa Looks to Expand Education Choice

Published November 6, 2013

As Iowans look forward to the 2014 legislative session, lawmakers are set to address some big education measures.

Iowa school choice advocates aim to expand the state’s tax-credit scholarships and develop Education Savings Accounts (ESAs). ESAs deposit a child’s state education funds into an account parents control, giving parents more flexibility than vouchers and typically avoiding constitutional barriers that prohibit tax funding for religious schools.

Reform efforts have been ramping up in the floundering state, where students have not increased their academic achievement, on average, for years.

“Last session legislators, Republicans anyways, really helped push some great educational liberty pieces,” said Shane Vander Hart, a political strategist with 4:15 Communications, LLC. “The General Assembly last year passed independent private accreditation so schools can be accredited by a third party. Transportation and textbook money became available, and homeschoolers came out with some great reforms.”

Private School Headway
Third-party accreditation should help private schools grow, Vander Hart said. A third party may be more sympathetic toward their mission without pushing stifling requirements like the state’s Board of Education.

An October poll found a majority of Iowa voters support vouchers. The survey, commissioned by the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, also found voters rate private and public schools similarly but 38 percent would like to send their children to private schools.

Though vouchers would offer more options, especially for low-income families, the state’s constitution says no one can be compelled to pay tithes to any religious organization. That has kept vouchers on the back burner.

“Iowa has never attempted vouchers because of the legal challenges that could be brought forward,” Vander Hart said.

Educational Savings Accounts
So school choice advocates are turning to ESAs this session. The Friedman poll found more voters support ESAs than oppose them, preferring universal access over eligibility based on financial need.

Iowa Advocates for Choice and Education (IACE) is making ESAs their priority for 2014.

“We’ve been at the mercy of the Department [of Education] for a long time in Iowa, and it worked well until about ten years ago when the department began to get really hostile against private schools,” said Eric Goranson, chairman of IACE. “ESAs have always been empowering.… They are just the natural evolution [for school choice].”

The flexibility of ESAs, allowing parents to put money toward textbooks, private school tuition, home schooling costs, and therapy, seems to be a major draw for coalition partners, said Michael Chartier, Friedman’s Iowa director.

Bringing ESAs to the legislative table this session will at least begin the process of educating members of legislature and constituents about them, Chartier said: “It’s a good starting point.”

“ESAs have the ability to have bipartisan support, and I believe the governor will support them as well,” Vander Hart said.

Tax Credit Growth
Iowa has offered tax credit scholarships since 2006, and a majority of those polled support them. These give state tax credits for 65 percent of donations to private K-12 scholarships.

Scholarship amounts have increased incrementally since first being introduced in the state. In 2013, LLCs were added to the list of organizations that could receive tax credits.

“[Tax credits] are certainly effective for the parents and students involved,” Chartier said. “Certainly the demand seems to be there for a much larger program, since they seem to keep hitting their cap every year. The latest tax cap increase for the program was supported unanimously, completely bipartisan.”

Parents Want Variety
The Friedman poll found Iowa voters consider education a top issue. Seventy-seven percent said they were paying attention to the educational landscape in the state, but only 11 percent came close to estimating how much Iowa taxpayers spend per pupil ($9,800).

Fifty percent of those polled support charter schools and just 25 percent opposed them.

“There is a disconnect between voters’ school preferences and actual enrollment patterns in the state,” the report states. “Voters show a diverse range of schooling preferences.”

Vouchers are probably not on the near horizon, Vander Hart said, because “Gov. [Terry] Branstad has gone on the record saying he won’t support vouchers.”


Learn more:
“Iowa K-12 and School Choice Survey,” Friedman Foundation, October 2013:

Image by Jon Fravel.