116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
Polls can be illuminating, but a lot depends on how you ask the question.
The Des Moines Register recently released the results of a poll they commissioned that included questions about policies that empower parents to select K-12 options for their children beyond their geographically assigned public schools.
School choice has been a hot topic in Iowa this legislative session; lawmakers considered enacting an education savings account or ESA program, which would provide eligible families with a government-authorized account to be used for multiple, restricted educational purposes including school tuition; tutoring; online education programs; therapies for students with special needs; textbooks or other instructional materials. Students could even use the funds to save for future college expenses.
In our national polling, ESAs have consistently been the most popular form of school choice, likely because they are the most flexible form of school choice.
Unfortunately, when the Register asked its poll respondents about choice, it didn't give them a lot of detail.
Respondents were simply asked if they favored or opposed using 'funds for public schools to help parents pay costs of non-public schools or home schooling for grades K through 12.”
Not surprisingly, only 44 percent of respondents indicated support, and 49 percent were opposed.
School choice programs frequently - and incorrectly - come under fire for allegedly taking money from public schools. It's a red herring. In fact, choice programs often lead to savings for taxpayers without taking money from public schools. For those interested, we recently published a working paper examining the fiscal effects of K-12 school choice programs throughout the United States. Still, those same critics do not complain when public school students move from one district to another or when families seek out housing in a neighborhood with high-quality schools. That's how school choice has always been practiced, but you can only access it if you have the means.
When you have deep, personal conversations with parents about educational opportunity, you begin to see beyond the numbers: Families just want what's best for their kids, and they want policymakers to knock down the barriers in their way.
Back in December, we joined forces with the Iowa Alliance for Choice in Education (Iowa ACE) to survey 1,000 registered voters in Iowa. This survey focused specifically on K-12 educational issues.
At first blush, our results mirrored the Register polling: just 43 percent of respondents said they would support an ESA. Many folks are not familiar with ESAs, or school choice more generally. Recognizing that reality, we followed up that initial question and told them how ESAs work. Once we gave them information about the program, support increased by 24 points to 67 percent. That's a huge jump, and it matches what we see in all of our polling.
We know we've got more work to do helping parents understand that they don't have to settle for the status quo. We're eager to continue that work because, as our polling bears out, the more people understand their K-12 options, the more they want access to those options.
Jordan Zakery is director of state relations at EdChoice.