School Choice Movement Declares Victory in Iowa

Governor Reynolds signed the Students First Act into law, making Iowa the first state to enact a school choice measure in 2023.

AP/Charlie Neibergall
Governor Reynolds speaks to schoolchildren as she signs a bill that creates education savings accounts, at the statehouse at Des Moines. AP/Charlie Neibergall

Iowa has become the first state in the nation to pass a school choice measure this year, an education savings account plan championed by Governor Reynolds.

A school choice advocate at the Heritage Foundation, Jason Bedrick, called the new law “a major win for families looking for education freedom and choice.”

Dubbed the Students First Act, the legislation flew through the state legislature after the governor introduced it earlier this month.

The recently re-elected Ms. Reynolds signaled throughout election season that school choice would be a top priority during the state’s spring legislative session. 

She endorsed a handful of political newcomers in Republican primaries against incumbent holdouts on her school choice agenda after failing to pass similar legislation last year. In four districts, Ms. Reynolds’s endorsees ousted incumbents in primaries and went on to win the general elections.

The bill passed in the state senate early Tuesday morning, and Ms. Reynolds signed it into law at the start of the workday. 

“Public schools are the foundation of our educational system, and for most families, they’ll continue to be the option of choice, but they aren’t the only choice,” Ms. Reynolds told a crowd at Des Moines on Tuesday. “With this bill, every child in Iowa, regardless of ZIP code or income, will have access to the school best suited to their individual needs.”

The school choice program takes the form of education savings accounts, which have become the taxpayer-funded scholarship of choice in recent years.

In Iowa, students will have access to about $7,600 — roughly equivalent to what Iowa pays per-student in public schools — to spend on education-related costs.

Per its title, the funds are disbursed in savings accounts. Funds roll over from year to year, which proponents see as an advantage by incentivizing economization in education spending.

“The idea is that it gives families a much greater degree of freedom and flexibility,” Mr. Bedrick of the Heritage Fund told the Sun. “Often they’re used for tuition, but they can be used for things like tutoring, textbooks, homeschool curricula, online learning, special needs, and more.”

Iowa’s ESA program will phase in over the course of three years. In the upcoming 2023-24 school year, savings accounts will be available for low-income families and families seeking to leave the traditional public school system. 

In the second year, eligibility will expand to include more middle class families. By the 2025-26 school year, it will be a universal education savings account program, much like Arizona’s.

While the new head of state in Arizona is trying to repeal its program, other states are following Iowa’s lead. Governors and Republican-held legislatures in Oklahoma, Texas, Arkansas, and Idaho are eyeing similar legislation in the coming year.

In Florida, the first house bill of the legislative session would make universal its education savings account program, another feather in the cap of the Sunshine State’s education agenda if passed.

The New York Sun

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