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January 2013 Policy Study, Number 13-1


School Choice: Not if the Unions Have Any Say


The Story of School Choice Options



Since the alarm sounded almost 30 years ago by publication of the 1983 “A Nation at Risk” report by the National Commission on Excellence in Education little has been accomplished to make fundamental improvements in schools and stem America’s declining educational attainment.[1] Today, Americans and Iowans are competing against a global workforce that’s becoming better educated every year. Meanwhile, our children’s education test scores are slipping, and America has lost its global lead and bragging rights as the country sending the highest percentage of young people to college.[2]


Fully one-quarter of U.S. students don’t finish high school, and 30 percent of those who do graduate don’t do well enough in math, science, and English to serve in the military.[3] A significant number don’t do well enough to be considered “college ready.” Nationally, in African American and Hispanic communities, over a third of high school students never receive diplomas.[4] The academic achievements of minority and low-income students in Iowa follow a similar pattern. The traditional educational system is failing our young people, the future of our country. Our parents and families understand this.


In response to parental dissatisfaction with failing government schools and demands for more options to address students’ unique learning needs, lawmakers nationwide have ushered in an unprecedented era of school reform over the past decade, and especially during the last two years. Across the elementary and secondary education landscape, there has been a proliferation of public charter schools, public online schools, open-enrollment policies, and school-choice-support efforts such as tuition scholarships and non-profit tuition organizations. In many states and communities these reforms have for the first time truly empowered parents to make personal decisions about their children’s needs, and where to send their children to school.


Parents’ enthusiasm is reflected in the impressive growth of school-choice options, as documented below.


• Twenty states permit students to “open-enroll” in a government school outside their residential district.[5] This was implemented in Iowa back during Governor Terry Branstad’s first term in office over 20 years ago (1990-91), and is very popular for a variety of reasons. Over 26,000 students currently use the open-enrollment option. Yet, when talking about issues related to it last July, Anamosa Superintendent Brian Ney expressed what seems to be a common sentiment, “We’re trying not to make it easy for other people to send their kids out.”[6]


• Eleven states currently offer scholarship-tax-credit programs, serving over 125,000 students in 2011-2012. These states are as varied as Arizona, Florida, Indiana, Iowa, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, and Rhode Island; and students can access state-supported tax-credit tuition scholarships to enroll in a private school.[7] The Iowa allowable School Tuition Organization (STO) tax-credit limit was raised in 2012 to $8.75 million.[8]


• Approximately 250,000 students, from 30 states, were enrolled in full-time online K-12 government schools during the 2010-2011 school year, compared to about 50,000 ten years earlier, and a 25 percent increase over the previous year.[9] The first online programs were authorized in Iowa this year, in the Clayton Ridge and Cumberland, Anita, and Massena (CAM) school districts.


• Over 2 million government school students are enrolled in public charter schools, in 41 states and the District of Columbia, as of the fall of 2012.[10] In Iowa the charter school movement has been virtually non-existent, hobbled by a stringent regulatory burden.


Previous Public Interest Institute POLICY STUDIES on school choice include, #12-6: Lead, Follow, or Get Out of the Way: School Choice in Iowa, with additional work in 2011.


To quote Newton’s Third Law of Motion, “For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.” These and other reforms have frequently been opposed by powerful vested interests with a stake in keeping students enrolled in the traditional government education monopoly.


State laws historically required every child within a specified geographic area to report to a district-sponsored public brick-and-mortar school building for a structured 180 days of prescribed and uniform class periods. While this system has served, and continues to serve many students sufficiently well, it increasingly struggles to ensure every student access to an adequate 21st-century education.


Further, despite its chronic failings, the incumbent system is strongly defended by those who have historically thrived there: school administrators and their unionized teaching faculties.



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