Public education: Poison or promise?

The co-authors of this commentary are Tim Urban, president of Urban Development Corporation and a former Des Moines City Council member, and Lawrence Streyffeler, a retired Des Moines Public Schools elementary school principal.

The recent attacks by parents and politicians on our public schools are poisoning public education. Many states have recently empowered private education institutions by supporting charter schools, homeschooling, and state-funded vouchers for students to attend private schools instead of their local public schools.

Proponents argue that the declining quality of student performance in public schools warrants giving parents a choice where to educate their children. They often cite parents who want to enrich their children’s education, but cannot pay for it.

Such student outcomes are self-fulfilling In Iowa when public schools are starved.

The school choice movement: Charters to Vouchers

Throughout American history, parental choice has been provided by robust and full-service systems of schools funded by government, while religious and private schools selectively admit students, with tuition covered by the parents or subsidized by the schools. This exchange grants some parents the right to educate their children in schools aligned with their religious or ideological preferences, or with enriched curricula to advance their student’s learning at parental expense. Meanwhile, public schools provide education to students regardless of their needs or circumstances at government expense. This has been the hallmark of American education.

In Capitalism and Freedom, published in 1962, libertarian economist Milton Friedman proposed that the government provide needy families with vouchers, which they could redeem at private schools. This would allow market forces, not the government, to shape public education causing failing schools to close and compelling individuals and organizations to open competition. A voucher system would give parents unrestricted rights to enroll their children in schools of their choice, including homeschooling.

But an all-private system would provide no guarantees of schools accessible to all students. Unless regulated by the government, private schools would not meet educational standards. Subsequently, open enrollment has evolved, allowing students to freely attend schools outside their neighborhoods or in other public school districts.

In 1983, Friedman changed his mind about vouchers and advocated for charter schools, many of which were regulated by local and state governments. The Reagan Administration released a report, A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Education Reform. The report warned of a “rising tide of mediocrity.” The Charter School movement started in 1991 and has ballooned since—both public and private charters. These schools were intended to widen parental choice, some under the oversight of public school districts.

In Des Moines and other urban counties in Iowa, public magnet schools, a central campus and schools offering specialized and enriched education have combined with a network of parochial and private schools to expand parental choice. But many public rural schools have been shuttered due to population decline and shrinking financial support. Only a few parochial schools have flourished in rural areas. Today in the U.S., for-profit charter schools run 14 percent of all charters, many of which are online academies, which (allegedly) have failed students.

On average, online charter students achieve fewer days of learning math each year versus public school students. The top criticisms of charters is that they rob funding from district schools transferring funding per pupil; the money follows the child. Critics highlight that after 25 years and some 6,000 schools, charters still, on average, produce results roughly equal those of the public schools to which they set out to be better alternatives. At the same, private charter schools draw students away from public schools in which the public has made heavy investments.

The charter war has only grown more fraught since Donald Trump’s election. During the Trump administration, charter schools were abandoned in the federal budget, and the movement to vouchers gained new momentum.

Charters paved the way for vouchers, which turn citizens, invested in public institutions, into consumers, looking out only for their own child.  

Many private schools screen out LGBTQ students and students with learning and behavioral disabilities, while public schools must maintain special education programs with shrinking state funds to cover their costs. Parents, especially low-income parents, often pick schools based on convenience and safety, “but pay little or no attention to whether the kids were learning anything” says an education researcher. Demand for things like location, security, and athletic programs have allowed some failing charters to thrive. 

Charter schools suspend children with disabilities at a higher rate than public schools, and there have been many cases of inadequacy due to a lack of resources, experience, and insensitivity. 

But charter advocates argue that they exist as better alternatives to terrible public schools. So far, Iowa does not have “terrible public schools”, but with the voucher program, schools in some districts will fail to serve their students as their public financial support is diverted to private schools. Indeed, some public schools will disappear or be forced to reduce the quality of their education.

Iowa's new voucher law

The new Iowa law, which Governor Kim Reynolds signed on January 24, allocates about $1,200 for each student currently enrolled in a private school, but gives parents about $7,600 per student to move their child from a public to a private school. Public school districts will lose money, even if the legislature enacts the governor's proposed state funding increase to all districts of 2.5 percent (well below the rate of inflation). Iowa Senate Republicans have proposed a 2 percent state funding increase. 

Iowa's new law may be unconstitutional, because it does not require private schools to verify the credentials of their teachers, curricula standards, or the safety and suitability of their facilities. Private schools are not required to accept students with disabilities or provide any special education services. Many routinely refuse to make such accommodations.

Current Iowa law allows homeschooling parents to opt out of reporting and assessment requirements. So if the voucher program is expanded in the future to apply to homeschooling, parents will receive $7,600 per child, per year, to opt out of public schools with no accountability.

Parental control

Historically, a parent has the right to teach their own children their beliefs and customs, despite what the public media and school curricula disseminate. This is particularly true with private religious schools, where parents who wish their children to learn religious doctrine pay for this alternative education.

To their credit, Iowa Catholic Schools education curricula meet and exceed state graduation requirements for English, math, science and social studies. In addition to meeting all state requirements, the Iowa Department of Education conducts internal site visits to evaluate quality on a rotating basis. These private schools are accredited, and their teachers are licensed and must meet standards applicable to public schools. But they exclude students they don’t want to serve.

Currently, these schools receive no public funds. No universal admittance standards are proposed for new schools using vouchers leaving parents with special needs student with no choice at all. A majority of Iowans are skeptical or opposed to the proposed voucher initiative. An Iowa Poll conducted by Selzer & Co for the Des Moines Register in 2022 found that 52 percent of respondents opposed using public school funds to help parents pay for private schools, while 41 percent supported the idea and 7 percent were unsure. 

Politics and public education

The recent politicization of public education is evident. Some characterize teaching racial history as a “woke” phenomenon. Some falsely claim that school curricula cast all white people as racists, although little evidence exists that this is occurring. Teachers, librarians, and LGBTQ and minority students are demonized, eroding public confidence in public education and stoking “parental choice” with no accountability of the quality of private education.

New "school choice" laws have predictable outcomes. Rural schools will continue to close as parents are paid to send them to private schools or far worse, homeschool them. These closures will accelerate as alternate schools are created to take advantage of state funding for vouchers, or parents will continue to migrate to larger communities with more private schools. The cycle will undermine rural communities and the services that support them—small businesses and health facilities. 

Some unregulated private schools will succumb to fraud, as has been the case in some private colleges. Urban schools will continue to become more burdened with students whose families lack the resources to support them. They will likely become more segregated, based on neighborhood demographics. As these neighborhood schools are stressed, parents will continue to move to the suburbs.

Although a majority of Iowans are skeptical or opposed to the voucher initiative, a majority of legislators pandered to parents who oppose public education, or gave in to pressure from the governor, who made "school choice" a top priority after failing to get a bill through the Iowa House two years in a row.

The new state voucher laws will be a disaster for educating the vast majority of Iowa children and will accelerate the decline of rural communities.

Top image: One entrance to the BGM Community School District High School, located in Brooklyn, Iowa. Photographed by Richc80 in 2009 for, available via Wikimedia Commons.

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