Gov. Kim Reynolds has made education choice a top priority—and she’s right to do so.
Among the 50 states and Washington, D.C., the Heritage Foundation’s newly released 2022 Education Freedom Report Card ranks a middling 22nd in education freedom.
Although Iowa comes in ninth in terms of school choice on the Heritage Report Card, the current options are limited in scope, and pale in comparison to those available in states like Arizona, which offers a universal education savings account program to all families.
In Iowa, low- and middle-income families have access to the School Tuition Organization Tax Credit, which provides more than 12,000 students scholarships to attend 143 private schools of choice. But the benefit is modest, providing an average scholarship of just $1,400, or 12% public school per-pupil spending.
Iowans also have access to a small Tuition and Textbook tax credit they can put toward educational expenses like tuition, books, and school fees. Again, the benefit is modest. While 111,000 taxpayers participate, their average credit was just $133 in 2019—or 1% of public school per-pupil spending.
Iowa could do much better. Earlier this year, the Iowa House thwarted a measure that would have provided education choice to thousands of additional families across the state.
Legislators would do well to heed Reynolds’ call to expand education choice by increasing the value of the School Tuition Organization tax credit and removing the existing $20 million cap. They should also increase the value of the Tuition and Textbook tax credit, which is currently capped at $500.
But to really lead on education choice, lawmakers should follow Arizona’s lead and establish a universal education savings account program.
Although there is significant room for improvement in Iowa’s school choice landscape, choice is the bright spot on the Hawkeye State’s report card. Iowa’s standing in terms of education freedom gets dimmer from there.
Heritage ranks Iowa 33rd in the nation in terms of academic transparency, a critical tool for parents to know what their children are being taught in school. Although Iowa has enacted a law prohibiting the use of racist ideas espoused through critical race theory, the law does not bar compelled speech—a key protection for students and teachers.
Iowa leaders can promote the intellectual development of students and protect the free exchange of ideas in the classroom by prohibiting public employees from compelling teachers or students to discuss and agree with policy issues without their consent. Iowa can also improve academic transparency by giving parents access to curriculum and materials in schools, putting into place a state-level requirement that school board meetings allow public comment, improving its Freedom of Information Act law response time, and moving all districts’ school board elections so that they are “on-cycle” with Iowa’s general elections, ensuring teachers unions and other special interest groups don’t dominate these important contests.
Iowa does slightly better when it comes to regulatory freedom, ranking 28th overall. But becoming a teacher in the Hawkeye State requires jumping over numerous unnecessary regulatory barriers. Research has long established there is no correlation between teacher certification and teacher impacts on student learning, yet just 2% of teachers in the state are alternatively certified, meaning nearly all go through colleges of education—now dominated by an obsession with critical race theory. Nor does Iowa allow for full reciprocity of teacher licensure with other states.
Iowa can improve its regulatory freedom ranking by significantly increasing the number of aspiring teachers who make their way into the K-12 classroom through alternative certification routes, or by eliminating teacher certification requirements altogether.
There is also room for improvement when it comes to return on taxpayer investment. Here, Iowa ranks 26th, spending over $15,200 annually per pupil in cost-of-living-adjusted terms, while tying for 24th place in reading and math outcomes. Moreover, Iowa is underwater when it comes to teacher to non-teacher staff ratio. The public schools employ 100 non-teachers for every 86 teachers.
Iowa can improve the taxpayers’ return on investment in education by stopping growth in non-teaching staff and lowering its unfunded teacher pension liability, which currently stands at 4.1% of state GDP.
Last March, Reynolds asserted: “Parents matter. They have a right to know, and to have a say in, what their kids are being taught.”
She’s absolutely right. It’s now time for policymakers in Iowa to follow the governor’s lead and empower families with transparency around what their children are being taught and expanded education choice options.
In so doing, the Hawkeye state will certainly earn better grades in next year’s Education Freedom Report Card next year. And Iowa’s students and their families will be better off as a result.
This piece originally appeared in the Des Moines Register