Discover the Difference: Get the Facts about School Choice in Iowa

by Diocese of Des Moines | March 1, 2021


Conversations surrounding school choice in Iowa have been fraught with varied opinions, emotions, and a lot of misinformation. It is easy to understand why – we all want what is best for Iowa's children. Because they are our future, they deserve a high-quality education filled with opportunity. However, it is important to understand what school choice legislation in Iowa means, and how it can benefit all students across the state. Below are some facts to help set the record straight regarding the school choice debate.

What is School Choice?

School choice directs public education funds to follow students to the schools or services that best meet their educational needs. The concept of school choice is hardly new with one of the earliest forms of school choice traced back to Vermont in 1869. School choice programs are legal and the U.S. Supreme Court has found in numerous cases that public funding "can be allocated to a family to spend on a child’s K–12 schooling, including for faith-based education," (EdChoice, 2021). 

School choice programs are in place in more than half of U.S. states and may include:

  • Tax-credit scholarships
  • Vouchers
  • Education Savings Accounts (ESAs)
  • Individual tax credits/deductions

What School Choice Programs are Currently Available in Iowa?

Iowa's school choice programs include a School Tuition Organization (STO) TaxCredit program and an Individual Tax Credit program. 

What is a STO Tax-Credit Scholarship Program?

STO Tax-Credit Scholarships provide tax benefits to individuals and businesses who donate to non-profit organizations that provide private school scholarships for low and middle-income families. The amount of tax credits distributed is capped at an amount determined by the legislature and may affect the availability and size of the STO scholarships.

What is an Individual Tax Credit?

Individual tax credits are a form of school choice that provides state income tax relief to parents for approved educational expenses. Iowa offers a Tuition and Textbook Tax Credit program that allows parents to receive a limited tax credit for their educational expenses. 

What are Education Savings Accounts?

Education savings accounts (ESAs) are a form of school choice where tax dollars set aside for every child’s education are deposited into government-authorized savings accounts. These funds are allocated to parents who opt for K-12 education options outside of traditional public schools. ESA usage and eligibility requirements are determined by the state government. 

ESAs foster good stewardship and responsible use of educational spending by empowering parents to shop educational providers based on price and quality, (Forster, 2016). And unlike traditional voucher programs, unused ESA funds can be rolled over from year to year to save for future educational expenses. 

This form of school choice is not the same as Iowa 529 Educational Savings Accounts which is a type of investment account individuals can establish and use to save for qualified education expenses. Currently, Iowa does not have an ESA school choice program but one has been proposed as part of Governor Kim Reynolds' Students First Act. 

What is the Students First Act?

The Students First Act calls for the expansion of public charter schools, open enrollment, and tuition and textbook tax credit for parents. This education bill also proposes the addition of ESAs to Iowa's school choice programs. Through this legislation, scholarships would be available for students in a public school building identified in comprehensive need of improvement to attend a nonpublic school. These ESA funds or Students First Scholarships will be created in the state treasury under the control of the Department of Education. 

"Our focus is on the students, rather than institutions, and finding the best ways to help some of them. We appreciate the governor’s Students First Scholarship proposal as a starting point to help some parents choose the educational option that best fits their child’s unique needs," said Tom Chapman, Iowa Catholic Conference executive director. 

The Students First Act passed the Iowa Senate and is now sitting in the Iowa House.

How will the Students First Act Benefit Students?

Overall, Iowans are pleased with the performance of the state's public schools. A recent survey by the Friedman Foundation noted, "Nearly two out of three respondents give positive ratings to the state’s public school system," (Friedman Foundation, 2021). Although the vast majority of public schools in Iowa are meeting benchmarks and performing well, 34 of the state's public schools are identified as in comprehensive need of improvement. The Students First Act aims to broaden school choice options for children attending these schools. 

Moreover, research shows that school choice has a positive impact on academic achievement. "Thirty-three empirical studies (including all methods) have examined school choice’s effect on students’ academic outcomes in public schools. Of those, 31 find choice improved public schools," (Forster, 2016). Students attending Iowa schools, even those performing to expectation, can benefit from school choice.

Forster goes on to state, "School choice improves academic outcomes for participants and public schools by allowing students to find the schools that best match their needs and by introducing healthy competition that keeps schools mission-focused. It saves money by eliminating administrative bloat and rewarding good stewardship of resources. It breaks down the barriers of residential segregation, drawing students together from diverse communities."

Other research on the impact of school choice on the academic achievement gap among minority students found, "school choice programs that include private schools could reduce the achievement gap by 25 percent," (Jeynes, 2014). The Students First Act expands school choice in Iowa and offers opportunities for all Iowa students, regardless of race, ethnicity, or income, by eliminating barriers that prevent families from choosing the school that’s best for them. 

How do School Choice Programs Impact Public School Funding?

With school choice programs, public schools retain a significant portion of the federal and local tax dollars allocated to educate a child – whether or not that child attends a public school. Additionally, the public school district no longer bears the cost of educating that child, which can be significantly higher than the amount of an ESA. In the case of ESAs, funding remains available from income and property taxes, as well as federal dollars, to put back into enriching a state's public education system. 

What is the Cost to Educate a Student in Iowa?

Unfortunately, Iowa voters are largely uninformed about the cost to educate a child at the state's public schools. Eighty-nine percent of respondents underestimated spending on students in public schools with more than 50 percent of those surveyed believing education spending was $5,000 or less per student annually (DiPerna, 2013). The reality is that on average, $9,824 per year is spent on each student in Iowa’s K-12 public schools. When federal funding is added in, this amount increases to $11,844 per student.

In fiscal year 2020, K-12 public education expenditures in Iowa totaled $5.7 billion, 90 percent of which was from state and local funding and the rest was from federal sources. Without the Diocese of Des Moines Catholic schools, it would cost the state of Iowa and its taxpayers an additional $60 million annually, $19 million of which would come from local property taxes.

Education is a large and vital investment in our communities. How we invest taxpayer dollars matters and these funds should provide the best education to all Iowa's children – no matter where that education is provided. 

What About Accreditation and Accountability?

All of Iowa's non-public schools undergo a rigorous process to become accredited by the Iowa Department of Education or by an independent, national accrediting agency approved by the state of Iowa. Teachers in Iowa’s accredited non-public schools must be licensed by the state Board of Educational Examiners. Iowa’s non-public schools submit multiple reports to the state on attendance, student data, achievement, and other measures. Iowa’s non-public schools are – perhaps most importantly – accountable to the parents who make significant sacrifices and entrust their children to them.

All 16 Diocese of Des Moines Catholic schools are fully accredited in the state of Iowa and nearly one-third of these schools hold Blue Ribbon designation. 

Do Iowans Support School Choice?

Yes. A January 2021 survey of school choice found that 77 percent of current Iowa school parents support the creation of a universal ESA program. The same survey also found that 43 percent of current and former Iowa school parents said they would prefer to send their children to private school if financial costs and transportation were of no concern but, only 7 percent of Iowa K–12 students are currently enrolled in a private school (DiPerna, 2013). The bottom line, Iowans want choice in their child's education, and removing financial barriers can empower parents to take charge of their child's education.

Learn More

To learn more about school choice programs in the state of Iowa, visit or


DiPerna, P. (2013). K-12 & School Choice Survey: What do voters say about K-12 education? Retrieved February 26 from

EdChoice. (2018). Are School Choice Programs Legal? Retrieved February 28, 2021 from

Forster, G. (2016). A Win-Win Solution: The Empirical Evidence on School Choice. Retrieved February 28 from

Iowa Alliance for Choice in Education. (2021). Programs. Retrieved February 28, 2021 from

Iowa Alliance for Choice in Education. (2021). Resources. Retrieved February 28, 2021 from

Jeynes, W.H. (2014).  School Choice and the Achievement Gap. Education and Urban Society, Vol. 46(2) 163–180.

McCluskey, N. and DeAngelis, C. (2021, February). Myths shouldn't block educational freedom: Here's the truth about school choice. Retrieved February 13, 2021 from

Diocese of Des Moines

The Diocese of Des Moines, created in 1911, serves people over a 12,446 square mile area in the southwestern quadrant of Iowa, including 23 counties.