School choice plan empowers families without harming public schools

Gov. Kim Reynolds’ proposed Student First Scholarships will empower 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 ESAs, program will open doors for Iowa’s youth and remove limitations of income or ZIP code.

The opposition to an ESA program, specifically outlined May 1 by the Des Moines Register editorial board, claims that this program will “fork over $55 million or more to private schools’ coffers.” This statement does not at all reflect the true nature of the program.

The 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 federal sources. This breaks down to an average of $9,824 per student provided by Iowa taxpayers. $6,620 of that is state funding and the other $3,204 is from local property taxes.

If the ESA program is established, qualifying families would receive 70% of the state’s per-pupil spending, currently about $5,400, for qualified education expenses. In order to qualify, students must be incoming kindergartners or public school transfer students with a household income of less than 400% of the federal poverty level, or be public school transfer students with an 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 ESA amount is less than would have been spent on these students if they were educated in the public system, so there is a savings to the state.

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Contrary to what some may believe, this program will not have a detrimental effect on the public schools. If a student leaves the public school system to attend a private school, the public school will no longer have the cost of educating the student and 30% of the per-pupil funding will be put back into the public school system. This is not a zero-sum game. It is not about public versus private schools. It is about providing the best educational options to our youth in Iowa.

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

A student’s education should not be limited by ZIP code or income level. ESAs will break down those barriers and allow parents to choose an education option that best fits the needs of their children.

As the Des Moines Register editorial board states, ensuring proper education for all children is part of our social compact. I could not agree more. That is why it is imperative that state legislators come together to implement school choice for parents.

Trish Wilger

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

This article originally appeared on Des Moines Register: Opinion: School choice empowers families; no harm to public schools