DES MOINES — A program that would allow Iowa parents to use taxpayer money to put their child in a non-public school could be proposed next year when Iowa lawmakers resume their work.
Varied versions of so-called school choice programs are operating in dozens of states, and the data on their effect is mixed.
Republicans, who have complete lawmaking control of the Iowa Capitol at least through 2018, would like to implement some type of school choice program during next year’s legislative session.
They would have preferred to pass something during this year’s session, which just ended Saturday, but those programs typically come with a healthy price tag, and Iowa legislators had to make budget reductions this year just to stay within the state’s means.
So Republicans will keep their fingers crossed that come next year the state budget will have sufficient breathing room for two conservative — but expensive — priorities they had to pass up this year: tax reform and school choice.
Supporters of school choice programs in general say parents should have the option — and the financial assistance — to choose where their child is educated.
Critics of school choice programs say they take critical funding away from public schools and divert taxpayer money to non-public schools that have little or no oversight, thus no way of showing whether the program is successful in increasing student achievement.
Some studies have tried to show the effect of school choice programs on student achievement and public education funding. Some results have shown increased student achievement, while others have shown student regression.
Walt Rogers, a Republican state legislator from Cedar Falls and chairman of the Iowa House’s education committee, said that before next year’s session begins, he will study the issue to determine what school choice policy is appropriate for Iowa.
Iowa Republicans have devoted most of their attention to educational savings accounts, of ESAs, under which parents can withdraw their child from a public school and have the taxpayer funding that would have gone toward the child’s education in a public school — or a percentage of it — placed into a government-authorized savings account. Those taxpayer funds could be used for various educational purposes, including tuition at a parochial or private school, homeschooling costs, private tutoring or other educational costs.
“It’s incumbent upon me to look at (education savings accounts) because there’s reputable data out there that says when ESAs are implemented good things happen all the way around. And there’s some opposing data that says other things,” Rogers said. “So to me, as an education chair, it’s incumbent upon me to look at that, give a thoughtful study to it.
"So I’ve told people over the interim that’s one of the things I want to do, is dig down deeper into ESAs. Is it really a beneficial thing for communities and even states to do and try? So that’s what I’ll be doing, and that will guide me to how much I’ll come back next year with a will to do something.”
EdChoice, a national nonprofit organization that advocates for school choice programs, in 2016 compiled a sort of study of studies, an analysis of dozens of studies conducted across the country. The EdChoice report found the majority of those studies showed academic outcomes improved among students who participated in school choice programs, as did the academic outcomes of students at public schools that lost students to school choice programs. The EdChoice analysis also found no study showed a negative impact on funding for public schools in states with school choice programs.
EdChoice until 2016 was the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, named for the Nobel Prize-winning, free-market economist Milton Friedman.
“The evidence points clearly in one direction,” reads the EdChoice report’s executive summary. “Opponents frequently claim school choice does not benefit participants, hurts public schools, costs taxpayers, facilitates segregation, and even undermines democracy. However, the empirical evidence shows that choice improves academic outcomes for participants and public schools, saves taxpayer money, moves students into more integrated classrooms, and strengthens the shared civic values and practices essential to American democracy.
“A few outlier cases that do not fit this pattern may get a disproportionate amount of attention, but the research consensus in favor of school choice as a general policy is clear and consistent.”
The report goes on to say its results “are not difficult to explain” and espouses some of the long-touted conservative arguments for school choice programs: They allow parents to find the right school for their child’s educational needs, they encourage competition among schools, and they save money by reducing wasteful spending.
But the author of three of the studies cited in that EdChoice report told the national fact-checking news agency PolitiFact that increased student achievement in those studies was modest at best.
“Less responsible voucher advocates will say that this is proof positive that these programs work,” David Figlio, a professor of education and social policy at Northwestern University, told PolitiFact. “I think a more responsible take on this is these programs don’t seem to be hurting public schools — at the scale that they’re at.”
Figlio also told PolitiFact the schools he studied lost only a small number of students to school choice programs, so it makes sense, he said, those schools did not suffer from a loss of funding because the loss was minor.
Other studies have found similarly murky results.
A 2016 Tulane University study found Louisiana’s school choice voucher program had a negative impact on students who participated, especially in mathematics, in the first two years. However, the study found those results improved from the first year to the second.
Similar to the EdChoice report, the Louisiana study found school choice programs had either no impact on students at competing public schools or student achievement at those public schools increased modestly.
“In general, our results present a mixed picture of the (Louisiana voucher program’s) effectiveness,” the report said. “We find the program had a negative impact on participating students’ academic achievement in the first two years of its operation, most clearly in math. On the other hand, the results improved between the first and second years and, through market-based pressures, the program may have slightly increased students’ math scores in public schools, particularly those most affected by the competitive threat.”
A 2016 study of Ohio’s school choice program, conducted by the conservative education think tank the Fordham Institute, found students who used the program fared worse academically than their public-school peers. That study, one of the studies written by Figlio, cautions that may be partially explained by the fact the study did not include students who left schools defined by the state as low-performing.
“Let us acknowledge that we did not expect — or, frankly, wish — to see these negative effects for voucher participants; but it’s important to report honestly on what the analysis showed and at least speculate on what may be causing these results,” the Fordham report said.
The report went on to speculate that possible reasons could include the aforementioned testing limitations, differences in schools’ testing environments or curriculum or that some private schools accepting voucher students “are themselves not performing as well as they should.”
Beyond student achievement, opponents have levied other criticisms of school choice programs, including that they often do not come with appropriate oversight and serve only to benefit families who already possess the financial means to send their children to private schools.
“The term education savings account sounds really nice, like every kid ought to have one. But really, it’s a voucher. It’s a price tag that’s put on the back of an Iowa student, that they would be able to take taxpayer dollars and go anywhere that family wanted them to go,” said Tammy Wawro, president of the Iowa State Education Association, which represents more than 34,000 public school educators. “It’s not just a family’s tax rebate. It is truly taxpayer dollars going with a child into a place that we have no authority over, we are not guaranteed any significant impact for our taxpayer dollars, and there’s no oversight. We ought to be very scared that that conversation even comes up.”
Arizona was the first state to implement an education savings account program, and a 2016 analysis by the Arizona Republic newspaper found the program was being used largely by students from well-performing schools in wealthier districts. The newspaper’s report said that during the 2015-16 school year, $20.6 million was taken out of Arizona schools with A or B ratings from the state, while $6.3 million was taken out of schools with C or D ratings.
Despite the muddled results from other states with school choice programs, many Iowa Republican legislators are ready to implement a program in the state when they return to work next year.
“This will create mobility and portability for Iowa students. This will be good for Iowa,” said Sen. Rick Bertrand, a Republican from Sioux City. “If we don’t set up the funding next year, at the least we need to set up the infrastructure that puts Iowa on course for education spending accounts. It’s time.”