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Fact Checker: Do school vouchers save money and improve academic performance?
Gov. Kim Reynolds makes claims about school choice to promote private school scholarships in Iowa
Gov. Kim Reynolds wants to persuade Iowa House Republicans to support an Iowa Senate bill that would provide private school scholarships, or vouchers, for up to 10,000 Iowa students.
But many rural lawmakers have balked because public school leaders say the proposal would drain funding from their districts.
Reynolds and U.S. Rep. Ashley Hinson held a private meeting with parents May 4 in Marion to discuss school policies adopted by the Linn-Mar Community School District to protect LGBTQ students.
At that meeting, Reynolds’ team distributed a flyer about private school vouchers, Iowa K-12 school performance and school funding. The Fact Checker decided to review these claims.
Claim: “Public education funding in Iowa has grown $1.12 billion since FY12.”
State funding awarded to K-12 school districts started at $3.48 billion in fiscal 2012 and reached $4.6 billion in fiscal 2022, according to the Iowa Department of Management.
The allocation for the current fiscal year is a 2.5 percent increase from the year before, an amount some critics described as “woefully inadequate,” in part because of inflation boosting the costs for food, bus fuel and other needs. Sen. Kevin Kinney, D-Oxford, wrote in a Gazette guest column the increase is small enough that 81 school districts “won’t get a dollar more in state funding compared to last year.”
Still, it is true funding from the state budget for education increased by over $1 billion. Grade: A
Claim: “For nearly 20 years, math and reading scores for Iowa students have been decreasing.”
The National Assessment of Educational Progress is a congressionally-mandated program that assesses educational progress by testing students in grades four, eight and 12. Raw data shows math and reading scores for fourth and eighth-graders in Iowa, for the most part, did fall over time.
Seventy-three percent Iowa’s fourth-graders were at or above basic reading proficiency in 1992, but by 2019, that fell to 68 percent.
Fourth-grade math scores rose in that same time period, starting at 72 percent of students who met basic proficiency in 1992 to 81 percent in 2019.
Seventy-two percent of eighth-graders met basic math proficiency in 2019, a drop from the 76 percent in 1992.
In 2003, 79 percent of eighth-graders reached basic reading proficiency, compared with the 73 percent by 2019.
Due to these generally lower scores, Iowa no longer is well above the national average on the National Assessment as of 2019. The program’s data may also indicate the rest of the country’s test scores caught up to Iowa’s, but it is true math and reading scores did fluctuate downward in the nearly two-decade span. Grade: A.
Claim: “65 studies on the financial impact of school choice found that programs have generated savings for taxpayers …”
For sourcing, the Governor’s Office sent the link to a 60-page slideshow by EdChoice, an Indiana-based not-for-profit that advocates for school choice.
EdChoice says 68 studies found private school choice programs generated savings for taxpayers, four studies found programs were cost neutral and five studies showed private school choice cost more.
Forty of these studies are fiscal analyses by Martin Lueken, director of the Fiscal Research and Education Center at EdChoice.
Lueken compares the amount of each private school scholarship — or educational savings account in some states — with the amount of funding the state pays for educating each student in public schools.
“Through FY 2018, the 40 educational choice programs under study generated an estimated $12.1 billion to $27.8 billion in cumulative net fiscal savings for state and local taxpayers,” he wrote.
A 2021 policy brief by two Ball State University professors found the state of Indiana spent $88 million less in 2019-2020 with students attending private schools through the Indiana Choice Scholarship Program than if those students attended public schools.
However, a 2020 report by PEER Mississippi, the Joint Legislative Committee on Performance Evaluation and Expenditure Review, showed educational savings accounts for students with disabilities cost the state $1 million more in fiscal 2019 and $2.1 million more in fiscal 2020.
The private school scholarship program approved by the Iowa Senate would provide up to $5,520 in tuition assistance to up to 10,000 students from low- to moderate-income families.
While that’s less than the $12,386 state and federal allocation for each Iowa student in 2022, the difference would be put into an operational sharing fund for districts that share administrators.
The scholarship program is designed to cost the same as what the state is spending now. But it would cost $55 million more in fiscal 2023 because the number of students attending each district is already locked in, and scholarships for those who decide to leave for private schools would cost extra, according to the nonpartisan Legislative Services Agency.
Grade: Reynolds is right multiple studies have shown voucher programs in other states have saved money. We’re downgrading her to a grade of B because the bulk of the studies cited in the flyer are from one advocacy group and not more inclusive.
Claim: “Studies show that private school choice has a positive impact on student attainment, increasing the odds of graduation from high school, enrolling in college and earning a degree.”
The Governor’s Office again referred to EdChoice, which says five studies found “positive effects on educational attainment for at least one subgroup of students.“
The first of those studies is a 2021 report published by the Institute for Education Sciences within the U.S. Department of Education.
Researchers studied the academic performance of Indiana students in traditional public schools, private schools and charter schools after the Indiana voucher program was passed in 2011. They found students attending private schools without a voucher had the highest performance, while students in charter schools had the lowest.
In math, 72 percent of traditional public school students met or exceeded standards compared with 79 percent of voucher recipients. The pattern was similar in English language arts.
Three of the studies listed by EdChoice are from the Urban Institute, a left-leaning research nonprofit.
The Urban Institute noted in a 2019 report students enrolled in private school scholarship programs in Milwaukee, Wis., and the state of Florida were more likely to enroll in college than similar public school peers. The report noted Washington, D.C., students who got vouchers were slightly less likely to go to college.
Grade: While some studies showed a slight increase in academic performance and college enrollment of some voucher students, at least one other study did not. Grade: B.
Claim: “Credible evidence demonstrates that school choice improves academic outcomes even for public schools …”
Some school choice supporters say public schools will up their game to compete with private schools once vouchers are an option for families. Several of the EdChoice studies cited by Reynolds showed small performance bumps at public schools as state voucher programs were gearing up.
For example, a 2020 working paper showed modest increases in standardized test scores and lower absenteeism and suspension in Florida public schools before the introduction of Florida Tax Credit Scholarships in 2001.
A study published in 2016 in the Journal of Economics and Finance by three Penn State professors found the CEO Horizon Scholarship Program in San Antonio, Texas, had “small, positive effects” on public schools — at least in the early years.
Yusuf Canbolat, an Indiana University doctoral student, studied Indiana’s voucher program over the long term and found public schools with more nearby private school options saw a “considerable decrease in proficiency rates due to the flight of relatively high achieving students from public schools to private schools.”
Grade: Several studies show a boost in public school performance in the beginning of voucher programs, but that does not appear to continue in the long term. Grade: B.
The claims in Reynolds’ flyer are pretty accurate — we give her a B overall.
She is using these statements as evidence private school scholarships are needed in Iowa, but there still are unanswered questions. Why have Iowa’s tests scores gone down? Is it because public schools don’t have enough competition or is it because K-12 funding hasn’t kept up with inflation — or some other reason?
And as far as whether vouchers would improve academic performance, one of the Ball State researchers said this: … “The impacts of school choice on students’ academic outcomes in Indiana have yet to be established …”
The Fact Checker team checks statements made by an Iowa political candidate/officeholder or a national candidate/officeholder about Iowa, or in ads that appear in our market.
Claims must be independently verifiable. We give statements grades from A to F based on accuracy and context.
If you spot a claim you think needs checking, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Members of the Fact Checker team are Elijah Decious, Erin Jordan, Marissa Payne and Michaela Ramm. This Fact Checker was researched and written by Erin Jordan and Michaela Ramm.