Options are a good thing. An important part of the capitalist society is having options and the ability to choose them. However, most Iowans do not have options for educating their children but they want them!
Iowa government schools have been considered good and have strong support from taxpayers. However, achievement has been stagnant for several years now. This is a well-documented fact, based on ACT test scores, National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) tests, and Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) tests. As a result, parents of the 500,000 children needing an education are interested in options. This is especially true when voters find out how much we spend educating each child.
Over 600 Iowa voters were interviewed in June concerning K-12 education. After the economy and jobs (27 percent), education is viewed as a critical public policy issue (19 percent), and three of four voters "pay attention" to education issues. Most voters (65 percent) think our government schools are either "good" or "excellent." There is a fairly significant difference, though, between Democrat and Republican voters. Democrats, by 71 to 29 percent, think the government schools are good, while only 58 percent of Republicans do.
However, virtually no one, Democrat or Republican, has any idea how much we pay to attempt to educate our children. Only 11 percent think that we spend over $8,000 per student. As a result many (45 percent) think we do not spend enough on education. When informed that the total cost per student is almost $12,000 per year, this number drops significantly, to only one of three thinking we spend too little. When provided with the facts, many then decide that we spend too much.
Yet, even with strong support for government schools, one of three voters would chose a private school for their child. Private schools are viewed as providing a more rigorous education with better teachers. Parents and taxpayers want the best education possible for our children they understand that we need more rigor, whether provided by the government or a private entity. Iowans want the best. They do not especially care where it comes from.
There is also solid support for charter schools, which are government schools operating outside the normal system. Some charter schools are science or arts focused. Unfortunately, there are only three charter schools in Iowa.
When looking at vouchers and Educational Savings Accounts (ESA), the majority of respondents (54 percent) favor scholarships or vouchers for all, irrespective of income levels. An even larger majority (57 percent) favor ESAs for all families, with no income limit. Under an ESA, state government provides a set amount to a parent for a child's education. That money can be used for a government school, private school, homeschooling, and even college.
Similarly, 58 percent of voters favor the school tuition organization (STO) tax credits, offered for donations to low-income private-school scholarships. The Iowa Legislature increased the total amount of tax credits available to $12 million, and all were claimed by donors.
The results of this survey are important. Iowans want to choose the best education for our children, our grandchildren. And we want all Iowans, not just the wealthy, to have this freedom, this choice. We believe in self-determination and self-reliance.
Our State Legislators, in the House and the Senate, as well as Governor Branstad, would be well advised to heed the results of this survey and work proactively to provide Iowa families and children with a broader array of educational options.
Deborah D. Thornton is a research analyst for the Public Interest Institute in Mount Pleasant.