By Walt Rogers
As a former state legislator my top priority was and still is education. Perhaps one of the most memorable and heartfelt moments occurred when I chaired an Iowa House subcommittee hearing on a bill proposing Education Savings Accounts (ESAs). An emotional mother testified that her “public school does not offer my child what he needs, and I can’t afford anything else.” This mother’s top concern was for her child’s education. Expanding school choice in Iowa by allowing educational dollars to directly follow the student will open new opportunities for all children. Recent independent polling commissioned by TEF Iowa demonstrated that 62 percent of Iowans surveyed supported education dollars following the student rather than the school district.
The COVID-19 pandemic is drawing attention to school choice as public schools struggle to provide instruction, whether in person, online, or a hybrid of the two. Many parents are attempting to balance working and overseeing their children’s online education at home. Through these struggles, options like education pods, which are small groups of students who are taught by one teacher or tutor, are beginning to surface. The problem is that many families across Iowa cannot afford an alternative to public schools.
The pandemic is further demonstrating the old model of funding school systems instead of students is obsolete. Education dollars should follow students and parents should have the ability to decide which school best fits their child’s needs. Educational opportunities should not be restricted by zip codes, socio-economic status, or other roadblocks.
“A massive crisis like the coronavirus pandemic is not the time to limit options for families struggling to find a way to balance their health, kids’ educations, and parents’ careers,” noted Corey DeAngelis, Director of school choice for the Reason Foundation.
Almost everyone agrees that education is a priority in Iowa. State and local taxpayers provide an estimated $16,314 per student (preK-12), which equals $326,280 for a class of 20 students. If education is a priority, then it should not be controversial that taxpayer dollars should follow the student. This is where ESAs come in as a commonsense solution, not only empowering parents with a choice for their child’s education but also creating competition within Iowa’s educational system, likely forcing schools – public and private- to innovate and improve.
An ESA would allow dollars to follow the student to the school of their choice. The design and dollar amount of ESAs can vary. The funding can either be based on public (tax dollars) or private dollars (tax credit scholarship). ESAs can be universal, tailored to families with lower incomes, or to families with children who have disabilities.
Results across the country demonstrates that providing parents more options through school choice actually increases student outcomes. In fact, ESAs are proving especially beneficial in providing choices to lower income parents.
Taxpayers are already paying for education with their tax dollars and parents should be allowed to utilize those dollars for the best possible educational outcome. Many families across Iowa are working hard, paying their taxes, and sacrificing to send their children to a non-public school, but there are not nearly enough families who can come up with the financial resources to do the same. Parents all share a common goal of providing the best opportunities for their children and household finances should not be a limiting factor. Parents should have another option besides a one size fits all government monopoly.
Ensuring that dollars follow the student will remove barriers to educational opportunity and place our kids first.
Walt Rogers serves as Deputy Director of TEF Iowa and is a former state legislator from Cedar Falls.