November 2013 Brief: Volume 20, Number 31
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Everyone Wants School Choice!
by Deborah D. Thornton
Options are a good thing. We all like to have reasonably priced options for dinner, for a new pair of jeans, or for a new car. 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 long been considered excellent quality and have strong support from taxpayers and parents. However, our children’s 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 on educating each child, each year.
Over 600 “randomly selected and statistically representative” Iowa voters were interviewed at the end of June concerning K-12 education, and their knowledge about, and cost of, educational options for children. Unsurprisingly, after the economy and jobs (27 percent), education was viewed as one of the most critical public policy issues (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.” Those in eastern Iowa and rural areas have more concerns. 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 are paying to attempt to educate our children. Only 11 percent of voters think that we spend over $8,000 per student, and as a result many (45 percent) think we do not spend enough on education. When informed that the total expenditures per student are almost $12,000 per year, this number drops significantly, to only 34 percent thinking we do not spend enough. Conversely, when provided with that fact, many others surveyed then decide that we spend too much (15 percent).
Yet, even with strong support for government schools, one of three voters would chose a private school for their child. In comparing public and private schools, private schools are viewed as providing a more rigorous education with better teachers. This is important, because it means 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 allowed to operate outside the normal system. In some states charter schools are science or arts focused, instead of generalist. Unfortunately, there are only three charter schools in all of Iowa.
When looking at other options allowing parents more choice in their child’s education, such as vouchers and Educational Savings Accounts (ESA), the majority of respondents (54 percent) favor school vouchers for all, irrespective of income levels. An even larger majority (57 percent) favor ESAs for all families, with no income limit. As set up in states such as Arizona, 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 tax credits, which are offered to taxpayers who donate to low-income private-school scholarships. The Iowa Legislature increased the total amount of tax credits available to $12 million last spring, and all are expected to be claimed by donors before the year end.
The results of this survey are important for our Legislators to know, both Republicans and Democrats. Iowans want the ability 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. This attitude reflects a continuing, historical attitude of self-determination and self-reliance among parents and voters.
Our State Legislators, in both 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.
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