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Occasionally I will devote an entire newsletter to one topic.  This is such a time, and the issue is school choice.  Governor Kim Reynolds and many legislative candidates, including me, made this a central campaign theme last year.  It’s time to deliver on those campaign commitments to Iowa families.

Why are we doing this?  Many years ago, Iowa established what I call a “social contract” with the families of school age children.  We, the state, will direct taxpayer money to an exclusive public-school system whose job is to provide a basic education for all Iowa students.  Inherent in that contract was a trust that schools would provide education to our students to set them up for success in adulthood.  Most of our public schools continue to respect that trust.

Some schools in Iowa, however, have broken the public trust. Some have chosen to insert controversial content into classroom instruction, content which many, many parents rightfully find unacceptable.  Some schools were teaching values directly contradicting those values taught in the home.  Some schools, in an overreaction to the COVID pandemic, closed their doors for classroom instruction far beyond the time that was justified.  Some have chosen to teach our children what to think instead of teaching them how to think.

This week the Senate Education and Appropriations committees passed Senate File 94, commonly known as the Students First Act.  Governor Reynolds spoke at length about this bill in her Condition of the State speech last week, and the bill has been the primary topic of discussion in the early part of this session.  After passing both committees the bill is now eligible to be debated by the full Senate.

The Students First Act empowers all parents and students to choose the public or non-public school that best fits their educational needs.  It establishes an Educational Savings Account (ESA) for parents to pay for private school tuition, tutoring or other non-public school related expenses.  The plan phases-in over a three-year period.  Once fully implemented all students will be eligible for an ESA.  This legislation offers true school choice to low- and middle-income families as well, not just those families that can afford other non-public options.

The governor’s bill also includes over $1,200 per student in new funding for public schools with resident students attending a non-public school.  Public schools will keep their property tax revenue and they will receive an estimated $1,200 in state aid for each resident student opting for private education with an ESA.  SF 94 also creates an opportunity for nearly a hundred million dollars statewide to be used to raise teacher pay, money that is now sitting in restricted accounts in public schools.

Other states with substantive school choice programs show improved student achievement in both public and non-public schools.  Eleven peer-reviewed studies show improved achievement from students in private schools, and 25 studies show improved achievement from students in public school in states with school choice programs.  Furthermore, students in rural schools also see improved achievement. Arizona, a state with one of the most expansive school choice programs in the country, saw rural students improved by 21 points between 2007-2019 compared to a national rural decrease of two points.

Critics say school choice will take funding away from public schools. That claim is simply not true.  Every year since 2013 the state has provided record amounts to K-12 education, and we will continue to do so. Next year, Iowa schools are expected to receive over $17,000 per student, an average of over $340,000 for a classroom of 20 students, and a total of $8 billion statewide from all sources. Despite Democrats’ claims of “defunding” education, the only time K-12 funding has been cut is when Democrats controlled all of state government in 2009-2010.

Legitimate polls of Iowa voters have consistently shown strong parental support for school choice for all reasons but especially for bullying, special learning needs, and tutoring.  Governor Reynolds made school choice a centerpiece of her campaign, and she won by one of the largest margins in an Iowa governor’s race in the last 40 years. Iowans have shown their support of school choice and after this week, it is several steps closer to becoming a reality.  Now is the time to provide educational choices for all Iowa students and families.

Author: Ken Rozenboom


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