Iowa came very close to enacting an expansive education choice policy last year. This year, after supporting school choice advocates who successfully primaried incumbents from her own party opposed to reform, Gov. Kimberly Reynolds is determined to see her ambitious education agenda over the finish line.
Her proposal is a package of reforms that includes giving families access to the state’s portion of per-pupil spending to use at the schools of their choice and creating work-based learning opportunities, teacher apprenticeships, and tutoring programs for struggling students.
In her annual Condition of the State address Tuesday night, Reynolds declared that her first priority is “making sure that every child is provided with a quality education that fits their needs.”
At the center of the governor’s education agenda is enacting an education savings account policy similar to those in nine other states. ESAs give families the freedom and flexibility to customize their children’s education.
Under the governor’s plan, all Iowa families who opt their child out of the public school system would be able to access the state’s portion of per-pupil spending—about $7,600—through an ESA to use for private school tuition, tutoring, textbooks, curricular materials, special-needs therapy, and more.
ESA opponents often argue that we just need to spend more on the public school system. But more funding alone won’t improve outcomes. If that were true, then at more than $30,000 per pupil annually, Washington, D.C., should rank among the top school systems in the nation instead of among the worst.
And as the governor noted, public school spending in Iowa is up $1 billion over the last decade—a 37% increase—but there are numerous states, like Florida, that spend less per pupil for the same or better results.
Reynolds called out critics of her proposal who want to make the issue about public schools versus private schools. In reality, it’s about finding the right fit for every child.
Families have a legitimate diversity of priorities when it comes to their children’s education. “Some families may want an education that conforms to their faith and moral convictions,” Reynolds observed. “Some kids may have ambitions and abilities that require a unique educational setting; others may experience bullying or have special needs.”
Most families are satisfied with their local schools, but no one school can best meet the needs of every child who just happens to live nearby. As the governor noted, “Every child is an individual who deserves an education tailored to their unique needs, and parents are in the best position to identify the right environment” for that education.
Reynolds gave her education agenda prominent placement in her speech and spoke about it at length—both are signals to legislators that she means business.
But they should have gotten that message already. Last year, Reynolds’ ESA proposal easily passed the state Senate but ran into trouble in the state House. After weeks of wrangling, it was clear that the school choice proposal simply didn’t have the votes.
But Reynolds didn’t give up. During the Republican primary, she endorsed pro-school choice challengers to incumbents who had opposed her ESA proposal—a rare move for a sitting governor. Four anti-school choice incumbents were ousted, including the sitting chair of the House Education Committee, and several pro-school choice candidates for open seats also won with Reynolds’ support.
Legislators appear to have gotten the message. Last month, Iowa House Speaker Pat Grassley said he is “pretty confident” House Republicans will support the governor’s ESA proposal this time.
The proposal is a part of a package of reforms intended to ensure that all Iowa children have access to a quality education. Reynolds also touted proposals to create or expand programs such as work-based learning opportunities, teacher apprenticeships, tutoring for struggling students, and training for teachers on the science of reading to improve early childhood literacy.
It’s an ambitious agenda and one that’s certain to attract national attention. But though the policies are varied, they share a common underlying purpose: At the center of all these ideas is a focus on the individual needs of individual children so that they can achieve their God-given potential.
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