“This is going to help us so much!” read the text message from the wife of a relative. She sent it on the first day of the application period for Education Savings Accounts. Not wanting to waste any time during the monthlong window, she had started the process right away. That evening, the confirmation on the website made it official: The application for an ESA for their two children had been approved.
My relative and his wife have a happy little family in Cedar Rapids. They’re homeowners and both employed full time, paying multiple streams of taxes. They’ve had at least one child in school since 2019, but it won’t be until this fall that they’ll get to use any state investment into their children’s education. Bypassing the local public school, which has rated on state performance profiles between “Needs Improvement” to “Priority” over the last several years, my relatives opted — at significant impact to their family budget — to enroll their children in a private school, where they are thriving.
School choice becomes law
ESAs, also called school choice, were finally enshrined into Iowa law this year with the passage of the Students First Act in January. Less than eight months after coming up short in 2022, Gov. Kim Reynolds got right to work at the start of the 2023 legislative session. With enough votes from new legislators, some of whom she took the unprecedented step of endorsing in a bruising Republican primary the previous spring, she strode across the finish line awash in that Big Kim Energy and signed school choice into law 15 days after the session gaveled in. Through ESAs, Iowa families can now opt to use the exact portion their child is allotted in state per-pupil aid at an accredited private school of their choice. No more, and no less.
The application process for ESAs closed late on Friday. Though final numbers weren’t available as of this column’s deadline, the flood of applications during the opening days tells a story of enthusiastic demand. The state Legislative Services Agency had estimated that participation in the ESA program during the 2023-2024 school year would hover around 14,068 students. On its tenth day, enrollment surpassed 15,500. By Friday, with hours left in the enrollment period, applications had been received for over 25,000 Iowa students.
If you build it, they will come. Iowa is building an education system that fosters choice, and Iowa families are coming for it.
Despite the overwhelming demand, the ESA program will be phased in, with universal eligibility for Iowa students starting in the 2025-2026 school year. As of now, we don’t have any demographic information yet on the students approved for ESAs, such as age, income or school district. But the phasing in of the law nevertheless tells us a few things about who is taking advantage of school choice.
Mainly benefits the wealthy? No
We know that existing private school students now eligible for ESAs hardly fit the stereotypical profile of a “rich kid.” For the 2023-2024 school year, eligibility for students enrolled in an Iowa private school during the previous full school year is limited to students from families with a household income at or below 300% of the federal poverty level. In 2024, that’s $90,000 for a family of four.
Put another way, the income cap on ESA eligibility for students enrolled last year in an Iowa private school is the equivalent of each parent earning an hourly wage of about $21.63 before taxes, well below what MIT considers a “living wage” in the state of Iowa. Somehow, those families were already scraping together the cost of tuition, which in the state of Iowa averages between $4800 and $9200 per student depending on grade level.
Maybe some of those families were getting discounted tuition for being members of the church that operates the school. Sure, they might have been receiving a grant from a School Tuition Organization, from which the average award usually equals less than half of the overall tuition cost. But those families weren’t getting any investment from per-pupil aid. Tuition and Textbook Tax Credits would offset no more than $500 per year per kid.
I don’t have enough gall to insist that families who make that kind of financial sacrifice for their kids’ education don’t deserve an equal sliver of the funding pie. Or to tell them that “school choice” should mean the choice between what’s best for their kids or what’s best for their bank account.
No state aid at all for rich kids? Hang on a minute
We also know that all students who attended Iowa public schools last year will be eligible for ESAs with no caps on family income. Critics of school choice will point to that to describe ESAs as welfare for wealthy kids whose parents can afford private school tuition. But those activists fail to acknowledge or perhaps even realize that the state already pays for the schooling of a huge number of wealthy students.
Why does the state already pay for so many rich kids? Because many of those rich kids already attend public schools, where education dollars are allotted on a per-pupil basis. Even the pro-school choice crowd, in the opinion of Yours Truly, fails to point out that the public funding purists are more than happy for those coveted public dollars pay for the schooling of even the wealthiest public school students.
When have you ever heard education activists claim that the country club kids attending CR Washington or Linn-Mar are taking funding away from poor students? Likely never. Because the argument is not about how education dollars are spent. It’s about who gets those dollars.
Private schools’ revenue comes from families choosing their institutions and spending their tuition dollars there. Public schools have operated for years based on therir number of students and how much the state gives them per student. A reduction in enrollment isn’t a reduction in expenses as much as it is an overall loss of money to the district. While that undoubtedly presents significant budget challenges, no student should never be made to attend a school for the sake of supporting it financially — especially when that student has a desire go elsewhere.
Frustrated families look elsewhere
It is without question a painful truth to face, especially for those who have dedicated lives and careers to public education. But that cold hard truth, as demonstrated by the overwhelming demand for ESAs, is that some families are ready to seek schooling outside the public system because at times, over the past several years, they have felt let down by those public schools. One can hardly blame them.
After all, how exactly should parents whose children were suffering significant emotional and academic setbacks from pandemic school closures have felt when some school districts sued the state for the right to keep them stuck in the dreary setting of remote learning? How should they have felt when a couple of their children’s teachers sent their own obituaries to the governor (and the media) as a stunt to protest having to return to their classrooms? How should parents expect to keep faith in a district whose school board backs their superintendent’s refusal to open for in-person learning in blatant defiance of the law?
How should one expect parents to feel when their child comes home with a recording of their teacher calling them “selfish” in front of their whole class for not wearing a COVID-19 mask? Or when they go to their child’s school to see a classroom littered with ideologically themed accouterments led by a teacher who brags on social media that her students all know her personal politics?
And why on earth would a parent want to keep their child in a district if they fear that district is going to help their struggling child socially transition to the other gender and hide it from their parents with the school’s help?
Private schools have always operated with the understanding that if they can’t meet a student’s needs, that student will take their money elsewhere. Placing per-pupil allotments under the control of the students utilizing them will introduce that same concept to public schools, offering many a sense of agency in their own education they may never have felt before. It marks the beginning of a change not only in process but also in culture. The onslaught of applications confirms what its proponents already knew: Iowans are ready and eager for school choice.
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This article has been updated to reflect updated ESA enrollment numbers made available after the article’s original print deadline.
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