Steven Holt, Iowa House of Representatives
Why We Passed School Choice
How it works, what is true and why we did it. Audio Option- listen to this article
Parental choice in education and improving public schools are the top priorities for Republicans in the 2023 Legislative session.
The Governor campaigned on school choice all over the state. Republicans running for the House and Senate campaigned all over the state on school choice and improving public schools. I spoke about it often.
On election night, the Governor won an historic victory, with a margin of nearly 20 points, Republicans in the Senate gained enough seats for a super-majority, and in the House, we gained seats to the historic level of 64. Now, we will keep our promises.
Our first action in keeping our promises to Iowans was to pass the Governor’s Student’s First Act, bringing real school choice to all the citizens of Iowa. There have been a number of distortions and lots of disinformation put out by those opposed to greater parental choice in education. I think it important to set the record straight about how the program works, how it fits in with our commitment to support the great equalizer that is public education, claims about school choice that are not supported by facts, and what has happened in other parts of the state that has forced the issue of school choice.
How It Works & Fits With Public Education:
Key provisions of the STUDENTS FIRST ACT include:
Parents who choose to enroll their children in an accredited private school will receive $7,598 for approved educational expenses, the amount of per pupil funding currently allocated annually by the state for each student. Parents can use these funds for tuition, fees, and other qualified expenses at an accredited private school. This funding will flow through a third-party vendor selected by the Board of Education. This system never places the funds directly into the parent’s hands, but rather the funds go from a savings account straight to the educational institution.
Other student funding generated by categorical state funding formulas will remain with public school districts. It is estimated that Iowa’s public schools will retain about $1,205 per pupil in categorical funding for each student who resides in their district but chooses to attend a private school. Since public schools currently receive no funding for students enrolled in a private school, this would be an increase in funding. In some districts, this increase will be in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.
In the first year that a family chooses to send their child to a private school and receive this funding, public schools will still get the $7,598 they normally receive for a student, even though the student chooses to attend a private school. The state in effect will double-pay the first year, which will minimize any funding disruptions for public schools. After year one, the public school would continue to receive approximately $1,205 in categorical funding from the state, even though the student is enrolled in a private school, but will no longer receive the $7,598, since those funds are following the child to the accredited school that best fits their needs. Some but not all of the expenses related to educating the child will also leave the public school and follow the student.
All students currently attending K-12 public school will be eligible for this program in the school year that begins in August 2023.
For students already attending an accredited private school, the program will be phased in over a period of three years. In Year 1 accredited private school students at or below 300% of the federal poverty level will be eligible ($82,250 income for a family of four). In Year 2, accredited private school students at or below 400% of the federal poverty level will qualify ($111,000 income for a family of four). In Year 3, all students will qualify.
The Students First Act also allows public school districts the flexibility to use unspent and ongoing funding from Teacher Leadership and Compensation, Professional Development, and Talented & Gifted categorical funds for increasing teacher salaries. There is currently almost $100 million statewide in unspent funds in these categoricals and almost $250 million is allocated to them each year.
Claims & Facts:
Claim: Public money should not be used for private schools.
Facts: Taxpayer money, often referred to in this discussion as public money, already goes to many private entities all over the state and nation. We do not require WIC or SNAP recipients to use government grocery stores. Medicare recipients are not forced to use only government hospitals. We have Pell Grants for education that are used at private institutions. Here in Iowa, the Iowa Tuition Grant has been used for years to fund students going to private colleges. The Governor’s school choice proposal extends what we do for college students to K-12 students. Iowa Tuition Grants allow Iowa students to have more choices and access when they select the university or college that best fits their needs, whether public or private. So will the Governor’s plan for K-12 students. In her letter to Iowans on the issue, the Governor stated, “Opponents argue that public dollars belong to public schools. I see it differently. Every dollar in Iowa’s general fund was earned by hardworking, tax-paying Iowans. It’s their money and it should be used for the good of the people. In the case of education, for the good of all students.” I agree with the Governor.
Claim: Data shows that school choice does not improve student outcomes.
Facts: As is the case with almost every controversial issue, you can find data to support both sides of an argument. However, I believe the data on school choice convincingly shows that both private and public-school outcomes improve where school choice is present. The vast majority of studies support this conclusion. Florida improved to first in the nation in many education outcomes after adopting school choice programs. Studies also suggest that when school choice is present, civic engagement increases, and parental satisfaction improves. Caroline Hoxby, an economics professor at Stanford University, found positive effects on the teaching profession from school choice programs.
Claim: Private Schools do not take special needs students.
Facts: Studies show that a large percentage of students in private schools in other states with school choice programs have special needs. There are also special needs students in Iowa’s private schools. Additionally, once private schools have access to increased funding with the creation of school choice, they would likely be able to increase their support of students with special needs.
Claim: Private Schools discriminate against certain students while public schools take all students.
Facts: While it is certainly true that public schools take almost all students, private schools exist to meet a variety of needs of families who want something other than what public schools offer. Perhaps it is a more faith-based approach, perhaps it is a focus on a certain academic specialty. If a need exists following the passage of school choice in Iowa, private schools are likely to be formed to meet those needs. Civil rights laws and protections pertain to private schools in many cases, with exceptions for religious beliefs. Educational Savings Accounts have been found constitutional in numerous court cases. The funding is placed in a savings account to be used by the student at the accredited private school that best fits their needs and does not go directly from the government to the school.
Claim: Accredited private schools lack accountability requirements.
Facts: Accredited private schools have numerous annual reporting requirements, which include: -Enrollment numbers -Gender and ethnicity of students -Bullying data -Accreditation requirements (health, safety, etc.) -Reports to accrediting agencies which include teacher certifications, safety drills, progress on school improvement plans, independent audit/assessment of financials, and adherence to all laws related to nonpublic schools -Title funding usage data and details - Annual reports to parents and constituents that include financial data and student assessment scores.
Ultimately, answering to parents is the most important measure of accountability, for parents can measure success for their children far better than government agencies ever could.
Claim: School Choice will destroy or weaken public schools.
Facts: This is the most misleading of all the claims made in opposition to school choice programs. In states where aggressive school choice programs have existed for over twenty years, only about 6% of students attend private schools. On average it is a very small percentage of students who leave public schools for private schools when these programs go into effect (1-3%). Of those percentages, even smaller amounts leave rural public schools. There is not a single public school in the nation that has closed its doors because of school choice.
However, if in fact a huge number of students were to leave public schools to attend accredited private schools, then it becomes profoundly clear just how important it was that we gave parents greater choice, since such an exodus would lay bare the reality that these schools were not meeting the needs of our students.
Claim: School choice is an attack on public-school teachers.
Facts: Iowa is blessed to have many resolute public-school teachers doing their best to meet the needs of their students in an environment that worsens by the day. They have lost most of the tools necessary to maintain discipline in the classroom, and the breakdown of our families has forced schools to take on an ever-increasing level of responsibility, with teachers having to deal with behavioral issues that make their jobs incredibly challenging. We should pray for our teachers every day, while working to find ways to help them be more successful. We must also reject the arguments of special interest groups that seek to confuse the issues before us. School choice does not in any way take away from the work our public-school teachers are doing. Ultimately, we must not simply fund the status quo if we are to improve education.
We can support public education and public-school teachers, while also embracing positive change.
Claim: The state cannot afford school choice.
Facts: Statement from the Speaker of the Iowa House, Pat Grassley: “I've heard some people cite concerns about the cost of HSB 1. As former Appropriations chair, I can assure you that we would not pass any plan that our state cannot afford. House Republicans have a reputation at the Capitol for being very cautious when it comes to the state budget. This has not changed. When fully implemented in FY 29, the projected cost of this program is $341 million. In the same year, the state is projected to spend $3.9 BILLION on public education. Given current projections, in that same year the state will have a $3.1 BILLION ending balance and $3.7 BILLION in the Taxpayer Relief Fund. Ultimately, $341 million amounts to just 4% of the state's annual budget. This program is not an existential threat to public education. Iowa can afford HSB 1.”
What is Driving School Choice:
Unfortunately, some of our public schools in other parts of Iowa are not always serving our students well. This is especially true in urban schools. Teachers, parents, and students are reporting egregious discipline problems in some schools, and a small number are listed as failing schools due to plummeting academic scores.
Regretfully, it is also true that some of our public schools in other parts of Iowa are ignoring the concerns of parents and are engaging in disturbing indoctrination of children, even in elementary school. In the Ames Community School District, a poster in a second-grade classroom is titled “Transgender Affirming,” contains what appears to be a picture of a male wearing female clothing, and states,
Everybody has the right to choose their own gender by listening to their own heart and mind. Everyone gets to choose if they are a girl or a boy or both or neither or something else, and no one else gets to choose for them.
I know this is hard to believe for those of us who are rational, but this is what second graders in Ames were exposed to. Parents have had enough, and numerous issues of a similar nature are being reported in some of our larger urban school districts.
In the Linn-Mar District, the school policy allows children to gender transition and change their name while withholding this information from parents, who are ultimately responsible for their welfare and safety.
It is these and other real issues in some school districts in Iowa that have resulted in hundreds of emails and documents in the in-boxes of legislators, and we are committed to stopping it. Is it any wonder that school choice became the plea of so many parents in Iowa?
I have no doubt that most of our public teachers and public schools are doing their best to positively educate our children and they will be supported as we address the issues I have highlighted. School Choice is the first step, but we will also work to reform the Board of Education to ensure that our laws are followed, and we will work on legislation to stop the indoctrination of our children in some of our school districts.
For additional details and updates on our efforts, you can go to my Facebook page, Holt For Iowa House, and like and follow my page. I will post weekly newsletters there as well, and you can sign up to receive them by email.
Change is always difficult, and no one wants their cheese moved, and while I understand the concerns, I believe that our efforts will have a positive impact on education in Iowa. Thank you for caring and thank you for being informed. – State Rep. Steven Holt