••• Education •••

Iowa and Utah expand school choice, pass universal ESA laws

The last few weeks have been very good for those in favor of giving parents more options in their children’s educational experiences. First, Iowa, followed by Utah,  passed laws creating educational spending accounts (ESA) that will provide state funding for students to attend private schools as well as other education-related expenses. Both states will provide about $8,000 per student to pursue an education outside the grip of the public school system. What makes the Iowa and Utah laws special is that they are universal ESA laws, which means virtually every student can qualify.

Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds, who signed the legislation into law, touted the ESA approach by stating Iowa will be “funding students instead of a system.” The Iowa ESA will be phased in over three years. By the 2025-2026 school year, all students will be eligible to receive an ESA. Iowa’s Legislative Services Agency estimates that by 2027 over 40,000 students, nearly 10% of all students in the Hawkeye State will be participating in the program.

On January 28 Utah’s “Utah Fits All Scholarship Program” was signed into law by Governor Spencer Cox. Like the Iowa model all Utah students will be eligible for an ESA. The Utah ESA begins in 2024.

Fervent opposition in both states came from the usual suspects going to their bag of scare-tactic clichés. Their fear and ignorance of school choice was put on full display. An Iowa state senator shouted out during the signing ceremony “nobody wants vouchers!” She clearly doesn’t understand that ESAs are NOT vouchers, but nothing strikes more fear into pro-establishment forces and is a call for action than the v-word. In fact, the Salt Lake Tribune used the v-word 18 times in an article lamenting the passage of the Utah ESA. Another Iowa senator who opposes ESAs claimed, “(s)pending public money with no accountability is reckless. Our public schools and students deserve better.” I couldn’t agree more. Unfortunately, it is the public education system that spends recklessly without accountability.

Then there is the “cherry-picking” argument that always seems to surface. The House Minority Leader in Iowa declared “(p)ublic schools accept all kids. Private schools pick and choose…This is not about school choice. This is about school administrator choice. School administrators decide who goes to our private schools; public schools welcome all children.” Frankly, I never understood that argument. I used to hear that all the time while I was a teacher. Shouldn’t the public schools be concerned how many students want to leave the public school system rather than which ones?

It’s routine that organized groups within the education establishment will do whatever it takes to overturn these laws. Expect legal challenges that will attempt to thwart these ESAs from taking effect. According to that Salt Lake Tribune article, “(t)he Utah Education Association promises to explore ‘every option available to overturn this damaging legislation that jeopardizes the future of public education.’” Translation: a lawsuit will be forthcoming.

The ESAs in these two states begin a new chapter in school choice – ones that are available to all students – as opposed to a targeted group such as low income or special education students. American Federation For Children and CATO Institute education fellow Corey DeAngelis said to look out for “Arkansas, Florida, Nebraska, Oklahoma, South Carolina, and Texas” regarding school choice expansion. Let’s hope Kansas can join Iowa, Utah and any or all of those other states with a universal ESA.

The Kansas legislature has begun that step by introducing the “Sunflower education equity act” which, too, is a universal ESA. The Kansas version provides, among other things:

• That virtually all students can qualify.
• Scholarships to attend private schools of choice, up to and including post-secondary tuition.
• Parents the ability to spend their ESA dollars on other non-tuition education related expenses.
• Scholarships in the amount of 95% of BASE state aid, which for the 2022-23 school year would be $4,604.

All this is very good, especially given the mood of the country regarding public education as people have experienced the heavy handedness, loss of learning, and other consequences of school closures due to the pandemic. It is long overdue for Kansas to get on board and allow students better educational opportunities. If Iowa and Utah can do it, there is no excuse for Kansas not to follow suit. Further evidence of the public mood was expressed in this SurveyUSA poll conducted in December 2022. In that poll, Kansas residents expressed their overwhelming support for parents being in control of their children’s education. Eighty-four percent of the respondents agreed with the statement that “Parents should have the primary say in the education of their children.” By a margin of 60% to 28%, respondents supported the concept of ESAs. Furthermore, 72% supported ESAs as an alternative for students who are in schools that do not meet their academic needs. And nearly two-thirds believe there should be no limits on those who could be eligible to receive an ESA.

Having said that, the state could do better regarding the amount of the proposed scholarships in HB 2218. Simply put, $4,604 is not enough. The number of families freeing themselves from the bounds of the public school system will definitely be a function of the amount of money available to them to do so.

Critics of ESAs often point out that the amount of the scholarships are not enough to cover private school tuition, thus making it difficult for low-income families to participate. Furthermore, total per-pupil spending in Kansas public schools is now north of $17k. The proposed Kansas ESA is barely one-fourth of that amount (and roughly half of the ESA amounts in Iowa and Utah). It would be unfortunate, indeed, for Kansas to pass an ESA law, only to see the scholarship amounts too small for thousands of Kansas families to grasp the freedoms offered by more educational opportunity.

Since the main purpose of the ESA is to provide tuition money for students to attend a private school, it follows logically that the amount of the ESA should be about the cost of that tuition. Kansas should at a minimum fund the ESA at the levels in Utah and Iowa to ensure all families have the opportunity to benefit, regardless of income level.