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February 2014 Policy Study, Number 14-1


Educational Freedom – For Your Child, My Child, All Children


Views on Educational Freedom in Iowa



A survey completed in Iowa last June (2013) conducted by the Friedman Foundation documented that Iowans also strongly support educational freedom for all children. 


Over 600 registered voters were surveyed, both land-line and cell-phone users, with 27 percent being parents.  “Registered voters” is a broader survey category than the more narrowly tailored “homeowners” of the Ohio study, and could be expected to encompass a wider variety of views.  The political breakdown was 33 percent Democrat, 25 percent Republican, and 32 percent No Party or Independent.[7]  This is true to the statewide voter statistics.  The residency, religious, racial, male/female, and income makeup of the respondents was also accurate to Iowa U.S. Census demographics. 


The lead researcher for the Friedman study, Paul DiPerna, was previously the Assistant Director for the Brown Center on Education Policy at the Brooking Institution in Washington, D.C., for six years and holds degrees from the University of Illinois and the University of Dayton.[8]


Iowans believe that education and education quality (19 percent) is one of the two most important issues facing our state.  The number one issue is jobs and the economy (27 percent).[9] As discussed previously, the ability of our workers to compete for good jobs in the current economy is driven by the quality of the education they receive or avail themselves of.


Most Iowans think that they pay “a lot” of attention to educational issues (40 percent), and parents of school-age children do so at an even higher rate (62 percent).  Democrats are more likely (46 percent) than Republicans (32 percent) to be concerned about government education. 


It should be noted that the Iowa teachers union and major education advocacy organizations donate almost exclusively to the Iowa Democrat party and their candidates.  These officeholders then complete the circle by strongly supporting the proposals of the union and advocacy organizations.


Two of three survey respondents gave the government-school system an overall “good” or “excellent” rating.  Voters in the Eastern Iowa/Cedar Rapids area have a more negative perception of government education than the overall survey (52 percent versus 46 percent).[10] 


Importantly, voters do not know how much of their tax money is spent on educating children – even though they think they pay a lot of attention to educational issues.  This was documented by an open-ended question about education funding.  Only 1 of 10 respondents correctly identified the state government per student spending as being in the range of $8,000 to $10,000 per year.  Almost 50 percent thought that we spend less than $8,000 per student and19 percent of those thought we spend less than $4,000.[11] Another third of the respondents admitted they “don’t know” how much is spent and offered no answer.  So a total of eight of ten people surveyed were woefully ignorant about how much we spend on government education, though they think it is critically important.


The Friedman survey then provided respondents with the “total expenditure” dollar figure of $11,800 per student actual spending (as of FY 2011).  This is a common technique in survey formatting, asking an open-ended question to find baseline knowledge and opinion then providing factual information to see if opinions then change.  When asked if $11,800 per student per year was too much money, too little, or about right, only one of three respondents then said spending was “too low.”[12] This is a significant difference from the previous results.


In considering educational quality, both government and private schools received positive grades of B or above but private schools earned a significantly higher percentage, 79 compared to 60, and also earned a higher percent of As.[13]


In considering educational choice options, slightly less than 50 percent of Iowans prefer government schools, with 38 percent favoring private schools as their first choice, if they could choose.  Both homeschooling and charter schools were preferred by 5 percent of voters.  It should be noted that there are very few authorized charter schools in Iowa (only two) and this is not an option for most children.


The 38 percent preference for private schools, if they could choose, is an important indication of the desire for educational freedom by Iowa voters.  Yet only 7 percent of children are actually enrolled in private schools.[14]  Only one of five who would prefer a private school is actually using one.  Of the 5 percent statewide who said they favored homeschooling, only about 2.3 percent, or 10,700 some children, are actually using this option.[15] Additionally, when viewed the other way, less than 50 percent of voters would chose government-schools first, yet 93 percent of students are enrolled in the government education system. 


This is an important result, as it shows that parents are not acting to follow their desires.  They would like for their children to be in private schools, but their children are not, presumably because a lack of personal financial resources to pay for private-school tuition does not allow the freedom of that choice.



Why are voters interested in educational freedom?  Primarily because of a desire for improved quality (12 percent), followed by better teachers and teaching quality, with “socialization” desires (10 percent) in third place.[16] 


The Friedman survey then tried to find out more about what type of educational choices Iowans want.  Though Iowa voters presumably do not know much about “charter” schools and how they can be expected to work since there are few currently available, after being given a basic definition of charter schools 50 percent of those surveyed favor allowing more.[17] On this question Republicans were strongly more supportive than Democrats, 69 to 40 percent.  Only one of four Iowans actually opposes charter schools.


After being given a definition of school “vouchers,” 54 percent of voters support a voucher system, with 38 percent opposing it.  Subsets of those supporting vouchers include school parents, rural residents, Republicans and conservatives, young and middle-aged voters, and low-income earners.[18] All of these groups could be expected to be users of school vouchers, especially younger parents who are low-income earners – those who could be expected to be most familiar with the current government school system, see how it is failing their children, and want something different.


Another educational freedom option which is being tried in some states is the Education Savings Account (ESA), which establishes a government-funded savings account for an individual student that can be used for public or private tuition, on-line education, tutoring, or college expenses.  Again, almost 50 percent of Iowans favor the development of an ESA system, while only 1 of 3 opposes them.  The support breaks along similar lines to charter and voucher support.  Importantly, Iowans think all students and parents should have the equal opportunity to take advantage of educational freedom programs, as they support universal access to ESAs (57 percent), versus only low-income based programs.[19]


One educational freedom option currently available to Iowans is the “tax-credit scholarship,” which funds the School Tuition Organization (STO) program.  Under this system, individuals and corporations donate to regional non-profit organizations, which then use the money for low-income private-school scholarships. These donors then receive a special certificate for a tax credit of 65 percent of their donation.  There is a total statewide limit of $12 million in credits available.[20]  Once the $12 million in credits are issued, individuals and corporations may still donate to private-school scholarships but not receive the state tax credit.  Donations to this program consistently max out the credits every year, even after the limit was raised in 2013.[21]


Voter support for the STO program is very strong, at 58 percent.  The support, according to the Friedman survey, is most intense among school parents, Republicans and conservatives, middle-age voters, high-income earners, and Catholics.


It is now incumbent upon the Governor and Iowa state Legislators to use this information and respond to their constituents’ needs and wants.




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