As America celebrates National School Choice Week, two states — Iowa and Utah — took the first steps this year to give families a greater say in their children’s education. Additionally, evidence from states with robust school choice policies refutes opponents’ claims that choice is hurting rural students and homeschoolers.
Last week, the education committees in both the Iowa House of Representatives and the Iowa Senate pushed ahead with Gov. Kim Reynolds’ educational choice bill, the Students First Act, which would make K-12 educational savings accounts, or ESAs, available to all Iowa families.
With an ESA, a family dropping their child out of the public school system would have access to the state’s share of per-student spending on public education — approximately $7,600 — to use for private school tuition, tutoring, textbooks, curriculum materials, special needs therapy and more.
In an open letter, Reynolds emphasized that most Iowans will likely continue to choose county public schools for their children. But the governor noted, “For families who otherwise cannot afford a private school better suited for their children, [the Students First Act] opens up new possibilities.”
On Friday, the Utah House of Representatives passed the Utah Fits All Act by a vote of 54 to 20. The bill would create about $8,000 in multipurpose scholarships annually for all K-12 students. The grants would function much like an ESA, except without the ability to save unused funds for future spending. The measure also included a pay rise for district school teachers.
“I believe that supporting education means supporting the best approach to the education of every child and our state,” said Rep. Candice Pierucci, who supports the bill. “So this bill aims to emphasize the focus on individualized student learning and find ways to give parents additional tools and options for their children’s education.”
Last year, Arizona became the first state to offer ESAs to every student. In 2021, West Virginia enacted an ESA policy open to all students graduating from a county school or entering kindergarten. Numerous other states are poised to follow suit this year, including Arkansas, Florida, Iowa, Indiana, Ohio, Oklahoma and Texas.
As the Wall Street Journal noted in an editorial this weekend, opponents of the school choice raise concerns about how the policy could affect rural school districts:
Public schools are sometimes the only option in rural areas, and school choice will ruin them, they say.
But as Corey DeAngelis recently wrote in these pages, rural counties can benefit just as much from school choice as anywhere else. If public schools really are the best or only option, students will not go anywhere else. A Heritage Foundation report recently documented that rural Arizona school districts, where school choice is thriving, have not suffered.
(The Heritage Foundation is the parent organization of The Daily Signal.)
Indeed, not only have Arizona’s rural schools shown no signs of harm, they have improved significantly over the past two decades in Arizona’s robust school choice environment.
As described in the Heritage report referenced above, from 2007 to 2019, fourth- and eighth-grade rural Arizona students’ reading and math scores increased by a total of 21 points on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, while scores in rural schools nationwide increased by two points went back . In science, rural schools in Arizona rose 22 points overall, while rural schools statewide rose just four points.
In the most recent post-pandemic national assessment, rural students in Arizona were still up nine points, while rural students nationwide fell 17 points from 2007.
Others have raised concerns about the potential of educational choice programs leading to home schooling regulations. Government shekels, so the argument goes, lead to state shackles. However, there are states with shackles but no shekels, and others with shekels but no shackles.
All of the states that the Home School Legal Defense Association lists as “high regulation” with respect to homeschoolers are states that lack an education savings account policy. Meanwhile, the states with the highest ESA involvement – Arizona and Florida – are classified by the association as “low-regulation” states.
When considering whether to support ESA guidelines, homeschoolers should examine how such guidelines have worked in states like Arizona, which have had them for more than a decade. To that end, the Arizona-based think tank Goldwater Institute recently published a paper by Michael Clark, a home school father whose family uses the ESA, about home schoolers’ experiences with the ESA in Arizona.
Clark noted that the ESAs “have not encroached on the freedoms of homeschooling,” but they have “provided life-changing services and resources for children with learning and developmental disabilities” and “encouraged entrepreneurship in education, leading to new and more affordable educational opportunities for all.” students, including homeschool students.”
The ESAs have also allowed many more families to homeschool their children, thereby strengthening the coalition of those willing to fight to protect homeschooling autonomy.
Of course, the devil is in the details. It is critical that educational choice policies are well crafted and ensure that homeschool autonomy is respected. So far, the ESA guidelines have been designed to do just that.
This piece originally appeared in The Daily Signal