“Public school does not offer my child what he needs, and I can’t afford anything else.” An emotional mother pleaded those words at a hearing a few years ago on a proposed Education Savings Account (ESA) bill before the Iowa Legislature. The moment still sticks with Walt Rogers, a former state legislator and Deputy Director of the Tax Education Foundation (TEF) Iowa, a nonprofit organization working to create and expand opportunities for Iowans.
Walt and his colleagues at TEF Iowa have been working for years to help this mother—and the many other Iowa parents who need other options to meet their child’s unique needs. Like millions of Americans, most Iowa families have one option when it comes to education, and that’s their public school. Many children thrive in a public school environment, but thousands of others struggle. These kids may experience bullying and want to transfer to another school. They may have a learning disability that their public school doesn’t have the resources to accommodate. Or maybe they live in an area with a failing school and they want to transfer to a better one.
Wealthier families can afford to pull their child out of public school and send them to a private school, or even move to a different school district. Low-income families don’t always have those options. TEF Iowa believed disadvantaged children should have the same opportunities as families with more money. There had to be a better way than Iowa’s one-size-fits-all approach to education.
This belief drove TEF Iowa’s efforts to promote educational opportunity and put the interests of parents and students first. After years of hard work, TEF Iowa’s campaign paid off in the 2021 legislative session, when Iowa passed several reforms that give more Iowa children access to the quality education they deserve.
Take a look at how TEF Iowa worked to give more Iowa students education choice.
In 2018, TEF Iowa partnered with EdChoice to publish a study on the benefits of Education Savings Accounts (ESAs) and the potential fiscal effects a program would have on state and local taxpayers in Iowa. ESAs are state-supervised funds that parents can use to pay for a wide variety of education options. The state government deposits a portion of what the state would have spent to send the child to public school into a private account that parents can use for education-related expenses.
TEF Iowa noted an ESA program in Iowa would save the state millions while also allowing tax dollars to follow the student rather than a specific designated school. Through blog posts, explainer pages, and other commentary, TEF Iowa began to make the case for more parental choice options in the Hawkeye State.
Like millions of parents and students across the country, Iowa families were frustrated with how their public schools handled learning during the pandemic. Parents now had to manage their children’s education at home on top of jobs and other responsibilities. While some students thrived in this online learning environment, thousands fell behind academically. The coronavirus exposed some of the problems with our country’s one-size-fits-all education system, and parents grew eager for more options.
TEF Iowa began to reiterate how parental choice programs can alleviate some of these problems. They explained the benefits of ESA programs and how ESAs empower parents to make the best education decisions for their kids.
In the fall, TEF Iowa produced a poll to gauge what Iowans think about key public policy issues, including education. The poll found 62 percent of Iowans believe tax dollars should follow the student to a school of the family’s choosing. TEF Iowa also highlighted the testimonials of Iowa parents and students who have benefitted from Iowa’s two school choice programs, the Tuition and Textbook Tax Credit Program and the School Tuition Organization Tax Credit Program.
Like many policy debates surrounding education, when Iowa legislators and policy experts discussed education reform, the conversation always centered on spending. Through op-eds, blog posts, storytelling, and outreach to lawmakers, TEF Iowa pointed out that while budgeting concerns are important, education is much more than just money. It’s about opportunity and giving every child a quality education that sets them up to succeed in life. TEF Iowa moved the debate away from spending and towards questions on the role education plays in a child’s future.
In her State of the State Address, Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds proposed a bold education reform plan called the “Students First Act.” This plan followed several recommendations of TEF Iowa, including establishing an ESA program and making open enrollment available in all districts.
TEF Iowa’s Walt Rogers was a valuable resource to the governor’s office if they had questions on what school choice was or what it could mean for Iowa families. The previous chair of the education committee in the Iowa House, Walt had built connections with lawmakers during his time in office, including with the governor’s staff. These connections helped TEF Iowa advance their education reform recommendations to top leaders in the state.
In addition to promoting ESAs, TEF Iowa also encouraged policymakers to eliminate barriers to open enrollment. Open enrollment is the ability of a student to enroll in a different public school district than their assigned one. It’s a way for parents to give their children a better education by transferring to a different school if they aren’t satisfied with their assigned one.
But Iowa allowed school districts to adopt something called voluntary diversity plans that prevent open enrollment. Five school districts implemented these plans, preventing the children in those five districts from enrolling in other public schools.
TEF Iowa partnered with a law firm to investigate the extent to which these districts were preventing open enrollment. They produced a startling report that found students in these five districts requested open enrollment for reasons such as harassment, bullying, and even sexual assault—and the school districts denied those requests. TEF Iowa shared the report with lawmakers and the media, and a local TV station produced a feature segment on the findings.
The Iowa Legislature convened on January 11, 2021, and TEF Iowa was hopeful lawmakers would pass education policies that would help families across the state.
Early in the session, the Iowa Legislature passed a law that stated all Iowa students, starting in February 2021, would have the opportunity to attend school 100 percent in person. This was a relief for many parents and children who were finding it hard to cope with remote learning.
TEF Iowa traveled across the state to talk directly to parents and students about education reform. In April, the organization launched a series that highlighted real Iowa parents, students, and teachers who have benefitted from school choice. They told the story of Alayna Davidson, a girl who was bullied in her public school but had the chance to attend a private religious school; Coretha Monmouth, a grandmother who was able to send her three grandchildren who were struggling in public school to a Christian academy; and Chassidi Martin, a mother of four and co-founder of Royal Legacy Christian Academy, a small school that focuses on faith and language learning in Waterloo, Iowa. The people in each story expressed how much a school choice program would benefit them and enrich their lives.
By the end of the legislative session, Iowa passed several bills that not only expand parental choice in the state but also prioritize students and parents over systems. First, Iowa expanded charter schools—or tuition-free public schools that give parents and communities more control over how their school is run.
Second, Iowa eliminated voluntary diversity plans, the policy that prevented school districts from allowing open enrollment. This gave more than 58,000 students the ability to enroll in a different public school if they wish to do so.
Third, lawmakers increased the Tuition and Textbook Tax Credit Program. Parents with students in public or private school can now get a 25 percent credit on education expenses, including tuition and books.
Finally, Iowa increased the School Tuition Organization tax credit to $20 million, and the percentage credit for donors to 75 percent. This program gives scholarship organization donors a tax credit for their donation. The scholarships help lower and middle class families pay for private school tuition.
TEF Iowa noted state lawmakers had several policy issues to address in the 2021 session, and unfortunately couldn’t get to all of them, including the ESA program. The ESA passed the Senate but failed in the House. A big reason why was the reluctance of rural legislators to get on board. Rural lawmakers live in districts that usually don’t have more than one education option besides the public school. And if these lawmakers supported an ESA program, they might receive significant pushback from teachers in their district. TEF Iowa noted it was difficult to persuade these lawmakers to support a bill that wouldn’t help their district directly but would help the state overall.
To help convince these lawmakers and promote ESAs, TEF Iowa is going to keep listening to parents who have benefitted from educational choice—and continue telling their stories. TEF Iowa encouraged other state think tanks working on education reform to do the same. Chris Ingstad, president of Iowans for Tax Relief, the advocacy arm of TEF Iowa, noted:
“Tell those stories. For a state like ours that is heavily rural, there currently might not be a lot of options for folks. Spend your time with legislators in those rural districts and understand what they need and help them understand why school choice is a good thing. Help the general public see it as well. Legislators are reflective of their district. If a legislator is not on board with something, it’s probably because his or her district isn’t on board. So spend some time in those districts, listen, and connect the dots for lawmakers on their pain points and how educational choice can help.”