Other state school voucher programs spell trouble for Iowa

Pat O’Donnell is a resident of Sioux Center and spent 37 years serving in Iowa public schools as a teacher, principal and superintendent. He may be reached at patnancy@zoho.com.

The first year of private-school vouchers is ending for Iowa students from preschool to 12th grades. The vouchers, created under the Students First Act, provide public money for “education savings accounts,” which parents can use to pay their children’s tuition to an accredited Iowa private school.

“Allowing parents to choose the education that’s best for their children levels the playing field and creates equal opportunities for Iowa’s students,” Governor Kim Reynolds said, describing the voucher program’s goal.

But does the program meet that goal? To answer that, it’s useful to examine the experiences of states with similar systems.

Republicans in the Ohio House of Representatives said their EdChoice vouchers plan would “safeguard lower-income families and offers options beyond traditional public schools.” 

But instead of promoting choice, much of the nearly $400 million for expanded Ohio school vouchers went to students who already attend private schools, the editorial board for cleveland.com and The Plain Dealer reported. They add: “The law’s lack of transparency and data-reporting guardrails forces parents making ‘school choice’ for academic reasons, rather than out of religious or other motivations, to blindly assume that a private or parochial school is the best choice, without actual data on educational performance.”

Arizona has a similar story. Save Our Schools Arizona, a public school advocacy organization, has been collecting data on the state’s voucher program. An estimated 75 percent of voucher users had no history of public school attendance.

Arizona now faces a $400 million budget shortfall this year and a $450 million deficit in the coming fiscal year. The deficiencies are mainly due to the skyrocketing costs of a 2022 voucher program expansion and a 2021 tax cut that went into full effect in November 2023. The price tag for Arizona’s voucher program increased by $64.5 million to $825 million in fiscal year 2024, and are on track to increase by $125.4 million in FY 2025.

Save Our Schools Arizona has documented how that state’s universal Empowerment Scholarship Accounts program “was designed to be unaccountable.” Vouchers have caused funding shortfalls, forcing public school districts to make harmful cuts.

Meanwhile, 95 percent of new voucher users in Arkansas have children who “did not attend public schools last year.” In Florida, nearly 70 percent of students using vouchers were already attending private schools.

An analysis by Education Week magazine found 29 states and the District of Columbia have at least one private school choice program as of March 22, 2024. Twelve of those states, including Iowa, have at least one private school choice program that’s universally accessible to K-12 students. Whether it’s called an education savings account, tax-credit scholarship or voucher, all “are generally aimed at using public funds — taxpayer money — to pay for private schools,” Politifact noted.

Republican legislatures control nearly all the states that have or are considering private school choice programs. Is this coincidence, or due to some driving force?

Consider this: Texas Governor Greg Abbott received $6 million from pro-voucher billionaire Steve Yass of Pennsylvania, which was the “largest single [campaign] donation in Texas history.” Trump education secretary Betsy DeVos of Michigan founded the pro-voucher American Federation for Children PAC, which has been spending heavily on key Texas state House races.

Texas’s voucher bill supposedly promotes choice for students and parents, but its text says “a private school is not subject to federal and state laws regarding provision of educational services to a child with disabilities in the same manner as a public school.”

DeVos wrote way back in 1997 that she had decided “to stop taking offense at the suggestion that we are buying influence. Now I simply concede the point. They are right. We do expect some things in return.”

The forces behind school voucher plans embrace hardball tactics. In Kochland: The Secret History of Koch Industries and Corporate Power in America, Christopher Leonard wrote that the political network conservative industrialists Charles and David Koch established “says it wants to remake public education. That means destroying it.”

Charles Koch backs Americans for Prosperity (AFP), a libertarian conservative political advocacy group. In a recording obtained by Nashville TV station WTVF, AFP Tennessee state director Tori Venable can be heard threatening a Republican legislator who was reluctant to back a voucher bill. “I can’t protect you if you ain’t on the right side of this,” Venable said. Rep. Todd Warner voted against the bill anyway. Meanwhile, a memo attributed to an AFP staff member said legislators “won’t have jobs” if they voted against the voucher plan.

Reynolds used similar strategies. After an education savings account proposal failed to pass in the Iowa house in 2021 and 2022, she endorsed House candidates in GOP primaries against some Republican legislators who had opposed the bill, seeking to protect their local schools and communities.

Who pushed Reynolds to exile fellow Republicans? During last year’s legislative session, she posed for photos several times with Corey DeAngelis, a self-proclaimed school choice evangelist with DeVos’s American Federation for Children. And Reynolds recently was named co-chair, with former Arizona governor Doug Ducey, of the Education Freedom Alliance, which promotes and lobbies for vouchers. It encourages 26 states, all under Republican legislative control, to pass universal “education freedom” policies by 2026.

Coalition members include the Job Creators Network, the Committee to Unleash Prosperity, and the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). Who are these folks Reynolds now associates with?

Far-right conservative megadonor Bernie Marcus, the Home Depot co-founder and former CEO, established the Job Creators Network.

The Committee to Unleash Prosperity supports debunked supply-side economic theories. It has ties to the Koch brothers, ALEC, and the conservative Heritage Foundation. Its founders include Fox financial pundit and former Trump administration official Larry Kudlow, former Forbes magazine executive and Republican presidential candidate Steve Forbes, and Reagan administration economist Arthur Laffer.

The Center for Media and Democracy describes ALEC as “a corporate bill mill. It is not just a lobby or a front group; it is much more powerful than that. Through ALEC, corporations hand state legislators their wish lists to benefit their bottom line.”

With her leadership position in the Education Freedom Alliance, Reynolds exposes her real plan for education. She claims parents wanted choice and that vouchers would provide opportunity. But in reality, she was pushing an agenda from powerful, rich, far-right billionaires who want to destroy public education and create segregation by socioeconomic status, disability, language, and race.

Perhaps Reynolds is thinking like Scott Cepicky, the lead school voucher bill sponsor in the Tennessee House of Representatives. Cepicky, whose children attend a private religious school, said he believes that “blowing it all back up” is the only way to “fix” the state’s public schools, which he describes as “terrible.” In a recording aired by WTVF, Cepicky said his goal for Tennessee public education is to “throw the whole freaking system in the trash.”

Regardless, it’s evident by the company she keeps that Reynolds doesn’t work for Iowans. She advocates for outside groups that push extreme right-wing agendas, not only in Iowa, but anywhere Republican majorities control legislatures. Laws providing educational vouchers for private schools aren’t about giving parents more school choice. It’s about destroying public education.

The question for Iowans is whether the governor and the legislature should work for the people or for billionaires aiming to transform the nation to fit their elitist ideas.

Top photo cropped from a picture Corey DeAngelis posted on Twitter in November 2022.

About the Author(s)

Pat O'Donnell

  • Politiical Bloviating

    This is obviously little more than political bloviating on the part of Mr. O’Donnell and the proof is in the number of parents who have taken advantage of the school voucher system. Now you have to ask yourself why that is. Coming from a place of experience like thousands of other parents we see the failures running rampant in the liberal/progressive educational indoctrination system. Formally known as public education. Over the last several years and even decades in some places schools have become less about teaching children the skills, knowledge and facts they need to become successful members of society and became systems of social engineering where children are told their feelings and emotions are more important that knowledge. The evidence of this social engineering is being witnessed on college campuses all over the nation currently and on many high school campuses with children walking out of class to protest social issues they don’t understand because they were never taught the facts of the situation. Knowledge is a wonderful thing and necessary for a society to succeed, but when that knowledge is replaced with an ideology meant to control the emotions of it’s students. You get the results being currently witnessed. A society that is ruled by their emotions is much easier to indoctrinate and control than one that has citizens with the intellect to see past the emotional connection to every facet of their lives. It is not just Mr. O’Donnell that is a part of this destructive cycle. It is also the Bleeding Hearts of the world who connect everything with emotions while leaving the facts behind because they get in the way of their ideology.

  • means test?

    I could see a means for test for those receiving state sponsored vouchers. One of my neighbors(a single Mom) used the voucher program to get her child into a private school. She’s overjoyed and a lifelong Democrat.

  • Per the last sentence...

    …the question for some Iowans, including me, is why so many Iowa voters agree with the agendas of right-wing billionaires and extreme libertarianism.  Because I’m through trying to persuade myself that the Iowans who have voted Republican in the last ten years didn’t really understand what they were voting for.  Rep. John Wills was in the CEDAR RAPIDS GAZETTE just today, saying that he opposes seat-belt-requirement laws.    

  • New reality

    Iowa entered the “new Iowa”in 2016 when Trump enthusiasts chose Trump over HRC. Since, each year public education and educators have taken a body blow. Chapter 20 et al. The urban voters go blue but the margin is insufficient to overcome the universal red voted in rural. In 2022, the rural margin was 2-1 which Democrats holding only the Auditors Office. Covid responses, driven by Reynolds ability to turn it to her favor, hurt public education and the mask-haters turn to naughty books and zip, zip too many Moms confused education and liberty.
    1. As hard as it is with budget shortages, public schools do have to prove their value
    2. The Ds will have to unite parents, all educators, etc and et al to vote for education candidates in November (like last school board elections)
    3. Silence is our enemy. Mr O’Donnell is urging peeps to understand the private ed surge. Most here know the whys/hows..
    4. Organize. Bring 6 new voters with you to the polls.

  • Thank you Darkman!

    Thank you Darkman for a sane and rational comment regarding this subject.

    Personally, I would love to see education run by each state vs federally. Governor Reynolds is a magnificent governor overall and she would run a tight ship for education in Iowa.

    God Bless you Darkman….we are in dire straits in this country and we need more people like you to wake the walking (brain)dead. If that’s even possible. at this point.