With re-election in the rear-view mirror, the Republican trifecta in Iowa has made its intentions clear: ending public education as we know it is on the 2023 legislative agenda. Among the tools for this would-be unmaking is an enormous Education Savings Account (ESA) scheme re-branded by Governor Kim Reynolds as “Student First Scholarships.” While Reynolds and the GOP legislature will undoubtedly assure Iowans that eligibility and cost will be limited – by placement, by income, or a capped number of applications – the end-game is always the same: universal eligibility, at exorbitant cost, that turns public money into a taxpayer-funded ATM for private and homeschooling parents.
Just look at Arizona, where a decade ago “Empowerment Scholarship Accounts” were sold to taxpayers as a limited-eligibility program intended for students with special needs. The very next year, the program was expanded to include students without special needs and those attending public schools that had been poorly rated by the state. Further expansions followed nearly every year until this summer, when then Governor Doug Ducey signed “the nation’s most expansive school voucher law,” making every K-12 student in the state eligible for an ESA.
The huge voucher program now looks nothing like what legislators promised back in 2011. More than 75 percent of students claiming ESAs have never attended public schools. And costs have ballooned. According to the Arizona Department of Education, the state will spend more than $300 million this year to pay for students to attend private, mostly religious schools. As Gloria Rebecca Gomez concluded in a column for the Arizona Mirror this fall, “the predictions of [those] who criticized the proposal appear to be coming true. The state will be subsidizing tuition for students who already attend pricey private schools.”
Now the Iowa GOP seems intent on following the Arizona model, creating a program that will end up as a similarly universal slush fund of public money for well-off parents who already send their kids to private schools. When I called out the proposed GOP plan for this inevitable expansion and the additional expense of state-subsidized private education, one reply characterized my assertion as “disinformation,” arguing that “ESAs will be targeted for kids that are disadvantaged or who are in government schools that are below standard. Please tell the truth.” But just this past May in an email to constituents, Iowa state Senator Brad Zaun included a talking point intended “For caucus only” which explicitly outlined how wealthy parents of private school students could take advantage of this scheme. Under the GOP plan, ESAs will accrue from kindergarten to high school graduation, and funds can be spent until the student is 23 years old:
“This means a family of means who has saved to send their children to private school can apply for an ESA when their child enters kindergarten. If they take on the cost of paying for private school from when their child is in kindergarten until they graduate high school but have been receiving ESA money, their child can use that money for higher education. This could result in the state paying almost the full cost of their higher education.”
Clearly, Iowa GOP insiders understand “Student First Scholarships” as the beginning of a decade-long project toward universal voucher expansion and the corresponding diminution of public education. Republican state representative Jon Thorup even appeared to acknowledge the cost to public schools when he justified voting against a voucher bill last spring. In a sign of the GOP’s commitment to the governor’s school privatization agenda, the state party ran a primary opponent against Thorup in June, endorsed by the governor herself. Thorup lost by 40 points.
Iowans deserve better than an education system cluttered with misinformation, waste, fraud, and abuse of taxpayer money in the guise of “Providing Educational Choice and Transparency for Iowa Families,” as Governor Reynolds’ website frames her agenda. If we have enough money to fund a two-tier public and private education system, we should invest it into improving accessibility and equity, and expanding school programming to guarantee the right of every Iowa child to a free, appropriate, and excellent public education.
Nick Covington taught high school social studies in Iowa for 10 years. He is the co-founder and Creative Director of the Human Restoration Project, an Iowa educational non-profit promoting systems-based thinking and grassroots organizing in education.