Randy Richardson is a former educator and retired associate executive director of the Iowa State Education Association.
Governor Kim Reynolds and the Republican-controlled legislature agreed to a budget that allocated $107 million in fiscal year 2024 to pay for private school vouchers for an estimated 14,068 students. But the number of Iowans who applied for “education savings accounts” vastly exceeded that number: 29,025 applications by the June 30 deadline.
The good folks at the nonpartisan Legislative Services Agency, who usually do an excellent job of forecasting costs, calculated the original estimate. However, when the actual number is more than double your forecast, something is off somewhere.
A July 6 news release from the governor’s office provided some additional data about the voucher applications. Of the 29,025 applications, about 17,481 have been approved. The state will continue to process the remaining applications up until the July 15 deadline. Of course, having an application approved by the state doesn’t guarantee students a seat in a private school classroom. According to estimates released by the governor’s office, private school leaders have indicated they have room for about 9,000 new students.
At first glance it seems like there is a big difference in the number of applications and the number of spots available in private schools, but things aren’t always as they appear.
When you look more closely at the numbers, you will find that approximately 60 percent of the applicants are students who already attend a private school. That doesn’t include approximately 3,200 students who are entering kindergarten this year and would normally be attending a private school. While the governor didn’t provide the exact numbers, we can guesstimate that there were roughly 17,415 (more than 20,000 if you count incoming kindergarten) private school students who will now have most or all of their tuition paid with a taxpayer-supported voucher.
Last year, total private school enrollment in Iowa was 33,692. By my estimates, that means 51.6 percent of existing private school students will soon be on the public dole.
Reynolds and Republican legislators have consistently portrayed vouchers as beneficial to low-income families who needed to escape the “failing” public schools. The numbers the governor’s office released yesterday show that’s not entirely accurate. The average net family income for the existing private school students who applied for a voucher is just $62,199. Obviously these folks fall into the lower income ranks.
However, the students who applied and who don’t currently attend a private school have an average net family income of $128,507. That figure is more than 400 percent of the Federal Poverty Level.
It’s also important to mention a pesky three letter word that now appears in the application process…”net.” In order to determine who qualifies for a voucher, Republicans have determined that income will be based on a family’s “net” income—that is, the family’s income after tax deductions. So an average family who applied for this program and who took a standard deduction on federal income taxes of $25,900 might actually have a gross income of well over $150,000.
For comparisons, an income of $122,401 would put an Iowa family in the top 20 percent of all wage earners in the state.
I’m not implying that these numbers are evidence of white flight in the application process, but it certainly appears that way.
The governor has indicated she hopes to fund all students who applied for a voucher, regardless of the cost. Not everyone who applied this year will qualify, given the ceiling for family incomes of 300 percent of the federal poverty level (that will rise to 400 percent in year two). But this year’s application numbers give us an idea of just how expensive this program will be, especially after income limits go away in year three. The state plans to give a voucher worth $7,635 to every student who applies. That alone would cost $221.6 million.
The voucher plan also contains an additional cost. The state will pay public schools $1,205 per student for every student who leaves the public school to attend a private school. It’s a little trickier to get that number, but here is a good estimate. Of the 29,025 voucher applicants, roughly 40 percent were not in a private school last year. That comes out to 11,610 students.
However, we also need to back out approximately 3,200 incoming kindergarten students who were never going to attend a public school, so now we’re looking at about 8,400 students who intend to leave the public schools. That’s an additional $10.1 million in cost. That brings the total cost of the school voucher program to an estimated $232 million. Keep in mind that the original estimated cost of this program was just $106.9 million in the first year.
What does this mean for our public schools? The biggest problem initially will be confusion about where students are enrolled. Just because a student is approved for an education savings account doesn’t mean they will actually get accepted into a private school. In addition, some number of students who begin attending a private school will quickly decide it’s not for them.
Either way, public schools are also going to take a significant financial hit. If all of the estimated 8,400 public school students leave, then public schools will lost out on approximately $54 million in state funding. That’s going to require schools to shuffle some teachers between grades, based upon where the need is. Schools will also need to reduce staff significantly next year to better match their new enrollment numbers.
Despite all of the Republican rhetoric about the failing public schools and the superiority of private schools, no definitive study shows that to be true. Republicans are simply out to destroy public schools.
Imagine what public schools could do if a Republican legislature was willing to invest an additional $178 million in our public schools. (CLARIFICATION: To calculate the net new cost to the state of school vouchers, you would need to subtract the $54 million that won’t be going to public schools from the $232 million price tag for the voucher plan.) The additional resources that could be brought to bear using that money would almost assuredly increase student performance and help restore some of the losses that took place during the pandemic. Unfortunately, under our current elected leadership it’s unlikely this will ever happen.
Top image cropped from “Milwaukee Public School Teachers and Supporters Picket Outside Milwaukee Public Schools Adminstration Building Milwaukee Wisconsin 4-24-18 1053” by www.cemillerphotography.com, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.