Iowa enacts universal school choice, but regulations will limit options for families

The year 2023 begins with a bang in school choice, as lawmakers in Iowa and Utah this month introduced education laws that would allow all K-12 students to access a portion of state-allocated education funding to use them for a variety of Educational spending, including private, to use school tuition, tutoring, curriculum and supplies, and educational therapies.

The Iowa Education Savings Account (ESA) bill passed both chambers of the legislature and was signed into law by Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds earlier this week. When fully implemented, Iowa’s ESA program will provide approximately $7,600 per year to all of the state’s K-12 students if they choose to graduate from an assigned district school.

Utah’s bill is similar to Iowa’s and would provide about $8,000 per year in scholarship funding for all K-12 students in Utah. This bill passed the Utah House of Representatives and is now up for debate in the state Senate.

Both bills are victories for families, who will now have far greater opportunities to opt out of a state-run private option school. Indeed, these bills give middle- and low-income families access to school choices that wealthier families have long enjoyed. High-income families have always been able to escape a compulsory school assignment, while most other families have remained trapped in their zip code.

School choice policies, particularly robust ones passed in Arizona and West Virginia last year, balance access to more and better educational options.

The good news is that families in some states now have the opportunity to consider other educational options that may better suit their child. The bad news is that supply of these options is still scarce. In Iowa in particular, these options are likely to remain scarce for the foreseeable future.

Few states require private schools to be accredited to standards set by the state Department of Education. Iowa is one of them. These regulations preceded all school-choice programs using taxpayers’ money and long restricted the entire private education sector in Iowa.

Government accreditation requirements restrict the supply of new and innovative learning models such as microschools, while favoring established companies. They also prevent certain types of schools, like the ones I highlight in mine Untrained Buch, refrain from working at all — regardless of school choice policies — because these self-directed schools largely reject standardized testing and top-down curriculum frameworks.

For example, a group of entrepreneurial educators had valiantly tried to start a Sudbury-style school in central Iowa, modeled on the famous Sudbury Valley School that opened in Massachusetts in 1968 and the growth of dozens of Sudbury model schools across Iowa has inspired the US and around the world. Sudbury Valley is still thriving today, more than half a century after its founding, and its graduates are thriving.

In July 2021, after many months of trying to open their Sunrise Sudbury School in the Des Moines area, the founders of Iowa announced that state regulations governing private schools would not allow it to open. “We have a heartbreaking update,” they posted on their school’s Facebook page. “For the past few months we have corresponded with the Iowa DoE and the BoEE. We have determined from our discussions that opening a model Sudbury school in Iowa is not feasible. Although this is obviously not the result we wanted for school, we are happy to graduate.”

State accreditation requirements for private schools, like those in Iowa, block access to certain models of education and discourage innovation and experimentation—regardless of school choice policies. These requirements protect traditional education models while crowding out competition, and reward established incumbents that play by the rules.

Iowa may have made strides this week in expanding access to family education options, but that access will likely remain restricted and those options will be limited until policymakers lift accreditation requirements for private schools. Educational entrepreneurs in Iowa should have the same freedom as most other states to adopt new and different school models, and families should have the freedom to choose the learning model that works best for them.

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