Introduction and Basic Principles
We believe, as most Iowans do, that parents are the primary educators of their children and are ultimately responsible for their upbringing. We also believe that the State of Iowa has a compelling (and state Constitutional) interest in ensuring every child has at least a quality, basic education.
In a society that compels education, currently pays for every child to obtain a government-run education, and can enforce up to a 30 day jail sentence and a $1,000 fine on parents for failing to ensure a child obtains an approved education; we believe the least the state should do is ensure each parent is empowered to choose the education that best meets their child’s needs. This would accomplish the state’s compelling interest in every child being educated is met while respecting the right of parents to direct that education.
Opponents of empowering parents with more choices in education say that we already have school choice – anyone can simply pay for a private education or sacrifice an income and educate at home. This tired argument ignores the financial realities of most Iowa families and perpetuates a system where only wealthier families and a limited number of lower income families (through scholarships) actually have that choice. We don’t believe denying lower-income, middle-income, and parents with children who need something different than their neighborhood school district can provide is a compassionate position. Even if every public school building could meet the needs of every child in the area, we believe the state owes parents options in respect of their natural role as primary caregivers and educators.
Below are a number of myths surrounding educational choice (also known as “school choice”). We hope it helps allay fears and allows you to confidently support a program that gives every child in Iowa the opportunity to thrive.
Myth Number 1: Educational choice programs drain resources from an already underfunded public school system. (“Public dollars for public schools.”)
There is a philosophical and a practical answer this most-common myth:
- Philosophical Answer – We believe that it is our Biblical obligation to care about the education that the majority of Iowans will still choose if a universal school choice program is put in place. Therefore, we want to see our public schools succeed as well and would not support a program we believed had a chance of harming any child’s educational environment.
- Practical Answer – If it were true that educational choice programs “drained” public schools of funding, then the state would be obligated to make up that difference. This has, however, never been the case in states with large choice programs. Iowa choice advocates aren’t asking the Iowa Legislature to reinvent the wheel. Many types of programs have been implemented in dozens of states and none have found that public schools are damaged by choice programs. According to research compiled by EdChoice, “Researchers have conducted 52 analyses on the fiscal effects of private school choice programs. Forty-seven found these programs generated overall fiscal savings for taxpayers; four found programs were cost-neutral; and one found a Louisiana program for students with exceptional special needs generated net costs.” Furthermore, we have not found a single example of a public school building or district struggling because of an educational choice program. States with larger programs still fund public education at similar or greater levels and public schools have increased per-pupil expenditures as taxpayer money continues to roll in with slightly fewer students to educate. Iowa’s school choice coalition would never support a program that has been shown to or may harm public schools. The Institute For Justice also has a great resource outlining common myths and highlighting in “Reality #1” that school choice programs save taxpayers money. That money can go back to public schools or be used for other priorities.
Public dollars should go to educate the public, not just be limited to public institutions at the exclusion of other providers. Nonpublic school students and their families are members of the public too and these are their dollars as well. In almost every other area of government spending (universal preschool, higher education research and tuition grants, private contractors building infrastructure or providing services to government), private providers are critical. For some reason, K-12 education has been the exception and there is no reason that shouldn’t change. Many precious children and their futures that demand it does.
Myth Number 2: Educational Choice will leave the most disadvantaged and difficult-to-educate students in the public school system.
Although some disaffected parents or hard-to-reach students will always exist, educational choice programs have proven to be part of the solution. Many parents feel helpless if their neighborhood public school isn’t the right fit for their child. Most lower-income families or students with with special needs never imagine private school as an option. Education Savings Accounts (ESAs) would empower and motivate these families for the first time. Iowa’s private schools welcome and successfully educate many students with special needs and circumstances. Iowa’s private schools want to welcome more disadvantaged and hard-to-reach children, but family income and lack of funding from state and federal sources for these students attending anything other than a public school make that challenging. Iowa is currently working on ensuring federal title funding reaches nonpublic school students and ESAs would go a long way in continuing to open doors for these children to succeed. We have yet to find an example of tax credit programs, vouchers, ESAs, or other choice programs decreasing diversity or emptying public schools of the “easy” or “good” kids. In fact, choice programs increase opportunities for all students and help public schools by sharing the work.
Research shows that participants in tax credit scholarship programs, vouchers, and ESAs tend to be the most academically behind and that, given time, they tend to outperform their peers when afforded the opportunity to learn in the environment that best meets their needs.
We should celebrate that the very purpose and nature of public schools is to provide an education to all children who enter their doors, even the hardest cases. That’s why they are there! Iowans should be grateful for that! Let’s let Iowa’s private schools help alleviate some of the demand for special needs services by opening up options for these students. Everyone wins.
Myth Number 3: Private schools are unaccountable.
Perhaps the most offensive and flagrantly misleading arguments against school choice programs is that private schools aren’t “accountable.” In Iowa, an education organization or location is not considered a “school” unless it is accredited by the state or an approved national or regional accrediting body.
Starting in 2013, Iowa’s private schools were finally able to be “independently accredited” by reputable third party accrediting agencies. These agencies are the gold standard in accreditation. Around the same time, state accreditation went from a model of on-site visits every five years to a desk audit model. Independent accrediting agencies did not change. Almost every Christian school in the state of Iowa is independently accredited, and have the additional burden (over state accreditation) of continuous improvement standards, regular on-site visits, and the risk of losing their accreditation if they don’t perform. Iowa’s Christian and independent, nonsectarian schools pay to be scrutinized by their accrediting bodies and committees of their peers and are held to a much higher standard than state accreditation. We don’t believe there is anything wrong with state accreditation for public schools or private schools that choose it – it simply isn’t as intense or accountability-laden as accreditations pursued by IACS members and other private schools in the state who choose another agency.
Additionally, and most importantly, Iowa’s private schools are ultimately accountable to parents. Unlike public schools, private schools that underperform or struggle financially close. Parents take their children somewhere else as they vote with their feet. There is no property tax or sales tax safety net. Private schools deliver. When they don’t, they fail. That is the ultimate accountability.
We’ve found that most “accountability measures” foisted on public schools have done little but hamper our public school friends’ ability to educate. We believe there is room to reduce regulation and unnecessary and damaging “accountability” measures on public schools to free up resources and the ability to innovate in public schools. We also believe that it is counter-productive and untenable to over-regulate private schools and that these “accountability” and curriculum mandates quickly bump up against a private school’s constitutional right to operate as a religious school.
Myth Number 4: Educational Choice violates the principal of Separation of Church and State.
We hear this argument less and less as educational programs grow across the nation, as polling shows Americans support these programs overwhelmingly, and as opponents of educational choice lose in court over and over again. If we are honest, there will always be those who simply don’t like the very idea of any child receiving a religious education. Despite that, it is helpful to review how this myth should be relegated to the past:
Multiple school choice programs have been challenged in court and in almost every case, well-designed and religiously neutral programs that empower parents are upheld as Constitutional. Often we see that those who are anti-religion in the pubic square get the constitutional question confused as they mistake religiously neutral for a prohibition on any religion at all. This simply isn’t how our Constitution was written nor how our nation has operated since its founding. In state after state after state we are seeing anti-religious roadblocks being torn down both in courts and in legislatures.
Here are just a few summaries of recent court cases that should put this argument to rest once and for all:
Zellman vs. Simmons-Harris – The Institute for Justice summarizes this case: “In 2002, the U.S. Supreme Court declared that educational choice programs are constitutional in an IJ case called Zelman v. Simmons-Harris. This case built on a number of prior decisions that held that the Establishment Clause permits neutral government programs of true private choice where individuals direct public aid to religious institutions. In Zelman, the Court held that a publicly funded scholarship program that allowed parents to choose to send their children to private and religious schools was no different. The Court explained: ‘[W]here a government aid program is neutral with respect to religion, and provides assistance directly to a broad class of citizens who, in turn, direct government aid to religious schools wholly as a result of their own genuine and independent private choice, the program is not readily subject to challenge under the Establishment Clause.’”
Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia Inc. v. Comer – The state of Missouri had a program that provided services to schools (public and private) but excluded religious schools, citing its “Blaine Amendment.” From SCOTUSblog: “The Missouri Department of Natural Resources’ express policy of denying grants to any applicant owned or controlled by a church, sect or other religious entity violated the rights of Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia, Inc., under the free exercise clause of the First Amendment by denying the church an otherwise available public benefit on account of its religious status.”
Espinoza vs. Montana Department of Revenue – Relying on its “Blaine Amendment,” Montana’s Supreme Court struck down the tax credit scholarship program on the grounds that it funded students attending religious schools. This case was centered on the idea that states could not include organizations in state programs if their “status” was religious. In other words, religious organizations could not receive state funds directly or indirectly. After almost 100 years of anti-Catholic and anti-religious bigotry, this case finally knocked down state Blaine Amendments, at least as it relates to educational choice and similar state programs that utilize private providers of any type.
Carson vs. Makin – After Espinoza, Maine tried to bypass the requirement to include religious schools if any other type of private school was included (“religious status”) by saying that they were excluding religious schools who “use” the money for religious purposes. You can be religious, they argued, as long as you don’t do anything religious. The Supreme Court agreed with the plaintiff that this is an absurd standard. Espinoza canned religious discrimination in state programs based on “religious status.” This case put the final nail in the coffin by prohibiting religious discrimination via “religious use” restrictions. From SCOTUSblog: “Maine’s “nonsectarian” requirement for otherwise generally available tuition assistance payments to parents who live in school districts that do not operate a secondary school of their own violates the free exercise clause of the First Amendment.”
Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru – This case addressed an additional issue beyond the “Blaine Amendment” discrimination issues. Can government regulate religious organization’s employment or religious standards to prevent “discrimination?” The answers is: No. It can’t. The court defined the “ministerial exception” to include religious schools. This case goes a long way in warning against over-regulation of religious schools in an effort to control them or prevent them from participating in programs.
From general benefit programs, to scholarship and voucher programs, to employment and religious policies of religious schools; the courts have been clear that it is not a violation of Constitutional principals to include religious schools in programming of about any nature and that excluding them is actually a violation of the rights of parents and religious schools.
Myth Number 5: Inequity grows because private schools don’t have to take everyone.
The charge to educate every child (in their assigned area) who comes to them for an education is one of the most beautiful things about public schools and should be celebrated! It’s what makes public schools unique and it is what is distinctive about their model. That being said, we should be very clear that not every public school building has to take every child. If a student has a special need or wants a special type of programing, your neighborhood public school is not obligated to provide it. The district may set up that service or programming at another location and bus that student all the way across town to participate. Whether this is optimal or not, it is an understandable reality. Why would we impose a different and more onerous standard on a private school with a different mission and fewer resources at its disposal? If any one public school isn’t required to take EVERY child, why should we require or treat differently any one private school building?
The argument that “private schools don’t have to take everyone” is a double-standard. Between Iowa’s public schools and other options, we can have a series of options that continues to meet the needs of every child while providing more options and increased efficiency.
Myth Number 6: Iowa already gives private schools millions of dollars.
Iowa doesn’t give any Iowa private school any dollars directly. The state provides money to public school districts to provide students in grades K-12 transportation and a very small amount of textbook and technology funding. These products and services are owned by the public school district.
The state allows donors to claim a tax credit and parents to receive tuition help from those private dollars utilizing the Educational Opportunities Act (or “School Tuition Organization” or STO program). These dollars are private dollars, a deferral of revenue from the state, and saves the state tens of millions of dollars each year according to the Iowa Department of Revenue. The state utilizes federal title dollars through public districts and AEAs to serve nonpublic school students in our private schools.
Iowa also has a personal tuition and textbook tax credit that helps some families offset tuition and fees if they itemize. This program is for public and private school parents and approximately 70% of claims are public school families receiving a tax credit for fees paid for their public school students.
There isn’t a program where the state writes a check to a private school. The state has chosen to make small investments in individual students through these programs and federal title funding is mandated under federal law and the money ends at the public school. These public schools and AEAs also take a small percentage (5-10%) of that money for “administrative” costs, meaning that public schools currently profit off of services provided to nonpublic school students not being educated in their own classrooms. Between the millions in savings each year via the STO tax credit program and the administrative costs held back by public school districts; private schools are able to retain some students who may otherwise not be able to make it work without those services but at tremendous savings to the state and with public schools making money too.
Even our proposed universal ESA program would not directly fund private schools. It would provide a portion of funds that would have gone to the public school for that student to his/her parents to use at a private school or other approved expenses. We are asking for Iowa to fund students – not any one institution, including any of ours.
Myth Number 7: Iowans don’t support educational choice programs.
Iowa’s primary election and general election results combined with the latest polling beg to differ. When ESAs are accurately described and the polling methods are in line with industry standards, 62-76% of Iowans and voters across the country support ESAs. The results have been clear and consistent.
Myth Number 8: School choice programs come with “strings attached.”
Although there are a few examples of programs across the nation with “accountability” measures in place (like state testing, accreditation standards, etc.), we have yet to see overly onerous “strings” attached to any program nor do we see them creeping in as the program ages. We are hopeful that the Iowa legislature will continue this trend with an ESA that not only is void of unnecessary strings attached, but that it clearly lays out protections for religious and other private schools. We have provided the legislature and Governor’s office with language and we appreciate the Senate passing ESA language with strong protections.
The simple fact is this: we fight Democratic and Republican mandates and restrictions every year at the state Capitol. It’s extremely tempting to impose requirements on schools to “fix” the issue that is most important to the legislator and/or his/her constituent who feels it is more important than any other and that schools “have to” be a part of the solution. We are usually successful in fending off those attacks (which is what they are – attacks on our autonomy and mission) and would rather do the same work within an environment that respects the rights and role of parents to direct their child’s education.
Iowa’s school choice coalition, including IACS, is committed to not supporting a bill with requirements that negatively impact our autonomy or mission.
Myth Number 9: Any expansion of school choice will hurt rural schools.
We’ve never seen this play out in other states with programs or in other nations with universal school choice (which is commonplace in Europe and other parts of the world). It is a fear without a basis. Most rural districts have fewer (many times zero) options outside of the local public school district or homeschooling.
If a rural district “can’t afford” to lose a family or two to another option, that is a separate issue that shouldn’t preclude every other family in the state wanting or needing another option from having one. There are multiple solutions for rural districts struggling to survive and maintain their identity and denying children opportunity and disrespecting the rights and role of parents shouldn’t be one of those solutions. Most importantly, however, is that there hasn’t been a demonstrable threat to rural public schools even if we pass a gold-standard universal ESA bill right out of the gate. It simply hasn’t been an issue anywhere else. As a matter of fact, there are plenty of beautiful stories about rural public and private school options working together for the betterment of their communities.
Myth Number 10: It’ll never pass.
Watch us. We won’t stop until state policy respects the God-given role of parents and matches the demand for opportunities. If you are ready to help us get this done, sign up for our email newsletter and help advocate for families waiting for choice in education.
The research shows public and private schools benefit when parents have choices. The moral obligation of the state is to respect the natural role and responsibilities of parents. Iowa’s students deserve choices. Pluralism and diversity in education benefits everyone. It’s time Iowa join the growing number of states in creating a culture of funding students over systems, respecting the unique needs and desires of families, and celebrating diversity in educational delivery mechanisms that give students the best shot at finding the perfect fit.