When the COVID-19 pandemic hit our education system, Iowa families were reminded of the importance of their children’s education and the role that in-person schooling plays in their daily lives. For many low-income families, the reminders didn’t stop there. Parents in this category were reminded of the limited options they had for choosing the type of pandemic learning experience that their children could receive. It became clear that a family’s financial means can present options for some — but obstacles for others.
What policies can help bridge this opportunity gap? School choice policies. In particular, a policy that is at the forefront of political discourse at the Iowa Capitol this legislative session: Education Savings Accounts, or ESAs.
The results from two polls were released in January and March of this year relating to Iowa adopting an ESA program. The first poll was conducted by Braun Research, and the second poll by the Des Moines Register and Mediacom. Both shared a positive outlook for an ESA program in the state of Iowa. Beyond their key findings, however, the most important lesson learned from these polls was the following: The more informed Iowans become on school choice policies, the more Iowans support them.
In January, the Braun Research poll showed 77% of current Iowa school parents support the creation of a universal Education Savings Account program. Because parents are the first and foremost educators of their children, strong support within this group speaks volumes as it indicates those most affected by this policy indeed favor the policy.
As for the Des Moines Register poll released this March, respondents were simply asked if they favor or oppose using funds for public schools to help parents pay costs of non-public schools or homeschooling for grades K-12. In my opinion, this question is an oversimplification of an ESA program and doesn’t provide the necessary context for Iowans to make an informed judgment.
Nevertheless, with little information on the subject, this poll indicated support for this practice is quickly trending upward. When compared to a 2017 poll by the Des Moines Register covering the same issue, support has grown by 9% from then to now.
It’s not surprising that during a period of time where Education Savings Accounts were emphasized more and more each year in Iowa’s political discourse, that support for the policy grew. Iowans were being introduced to ESAs, learning more about ESAs, and now exhibiting a trend of growing support for ESAs.
The Braun Research poll also went a step further to prove that Iowans informed on school choice policies are more likely to favor school choice policies. The poll showed that 43% of Iowans had never heard of ESAs. However, after being provided a definition, 67% of these who didn’t know they existed were now in favor.
Adequate information matters; not simply to bolster support for a policy, but to inform those whose financial means present more obstacles than options that help is out there. Iowa can follow the lead of other successful states and adopt an ESA program for low-income families to provide education choices during a time of crisis and bridge the gap of education opportunity regardless of income.
Can you guess the group that favored this policy most in the Des Moines Register poll? Lower-income Iowans. After all, these are the Iowans suffering from obstacles to choices in education.
And these are the families who need school choice most. Iowans need an ESA program, and it’s clear that more Iowans each day are learning why.