Americans observed School Choice Week this past week, and Iowa Republicans want to join the party.
Conservatives have lobbied for decades to offer families more educational options, yet Iowa has not fully embarked on the experiments underway in several other states. Proposals at the Statehouse this year could change that.
Education advocates are sharply polarized on school choice issues, conservatives relentlessly skeptical of public schooling, and liberals ideologically averse to any form of privatization. Each side is prone to cherry-picking research to support their cause.
Unfortunately there is no comprehensive, national data comparing students in traditional public school systems to those in alternative systems. What research is available shows mixed results.
Liberal economist Martin Carnoy is frequently cited by public school advocates arguing against school choice. He provides a good synopsis of the anti-school choice conclusion.
“Extensive research on educational vouchers in the United States over the past 25 years shows that gains in student achievement are at best small,” Carnoy wrote in a 2017 policy brief for the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute.
It’s not exactly a damning analysis.
The research is flawed in its reliance on test scores, which have a limited ability to fully assess students educational advancement. The progressive education activists who readily acknowledge test scores should not be the sole factor in policy decisions are often the same ones who use test select score comparisons as evidence against expanding school choice.
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If test scores and costs will be about the same, it seems reasonable to give parents more choices. I think most Iowans would agree in principle, but in practice, school choice comes in diverse and often complicated forms.
Iowa gets good marks from the National School Choice Week organization. We have open enrollment between public school districts, legislation allowing charter and magnet schools, online learning opportunities, and some tax incentives for private schooling. Republican policymakers and school choice advocates see room for improvement.
Gov. Kim Reynolds proposed in her Condition of the State address this month to expand tax advantages for families saving for private K-12 schooling.
Senate File 2091 would grant non-public school students state-funded education savings funds, equal to a portion of the state’s per-pupil spending.
House File 9 would allow parents at persistently low-achieving schools to petition for a voucher program.
Senate File 2017 would eliminate the Iowa Department of Education and transfer many of its duties to the Department of Workforce Development.
Iowans commit enormous support to public education, and it’s imperative we spend our investment in ways that reflect our values.
The state government spent more than $4.5 billion on education last fiscal year, about a quarter of the state budget and the second-largest state function behind human services. A recent report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities showed only three states increased education spending more quickly than Iowa between 2008 and 2015.
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Iowa makes an important appearance in the history of the education freedom movement. A 1965 Des Moines Register photo showed Amish children in Buchanan County running away from law enforcement agents who were tasked with putting the children in government schools.
The image of young people in the United States fleeing from forcible public education was widely reprinted, and may have helped generate support for family rights. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in a separate case seven years later that Amish children couldn’t be compelled to attend school past 8th grade, sending an important message that government doesn’t own children.
Police scooping up Amish children may seem distant from our current debate, yet the underlying question is the same - can the state parent better than parents?
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