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Iowa was flooded with more than 25,000 applications for the state’s new school choice savings accounts, nearly twice as many as the program’s budget can fund.
A total of 25,576 students have signed up for an education savings account as of Friday, hours before the midnight deadline. Iowa began accepting applications just a month earlier, on May 31.
The education savings accounts give families about $7,600 per year in state money to spend on tuition or other education expenses related to an accredited private school.
The Iowa legislature budgeted $107.4 million for the program, which would only fund about 14,000 students, the number the nonpartisan Legislative Services Agency estimated would sign up during the first year.
Iowa would have to spend about $195.3 million to fund every student who applied for the program.
The education savings accounts are the result of the Students First Act, which Republican Governor Kim Reynolds signed in January. Any K-12 student in Iowa can apply for the program.
“Public schools are the foundation of our education system and for most families they will continue to be the option of choice, but they aren’t the only choice,” Reynolds said at the time.
“For some families, a different path may be better for their children. With this bill, every child in Iowa, regardless of zip code or income, will have access to the school best suited for them,” the governor said.
The total number of approved education savings accounts will be made public after certified school enrollment numbers are finalized in the fall, the governor’s office said.
All education savings accounts that get approved will be funded, the Iowa education department told The Gazette.
“I do think it demonstrates a pent-up need in the state of Iowa for this program, and it’s good to see the people who wanted this option are taking advantage of it,” said state Representative John Wills, a Republican, who floor managed the bill in the House.
School choice programs exploded in popularity during and after the pandemic as parents became frustrated with public school lockdowns, falling grades due to remote learning, and in some cases, objectionable curriculum content.
Public schools saw an exodus of students who left for alternatives like private and charter schools as well as homeschooling. More than a million students left public schools in the first two years after COVID hit. In 2021, private school enrollment jumped 4%, and homeschool enrollment jumped 30%, according to an analysis by the Urban Institute.
Many states responded by increasing their school choice options. At least 20 states have enacted new or expanded school choice policies since 2021.
Arizona saw a similar explosion of applications last year when the state massively expanded its school voucher program to every K-12 student. Republican Governor Doug Ducey signed a bill allowing every student to get a taxpayer-funded Empowerment Scholarship Account of about $6,500 per child.
In just the first two weeks after Arizona began accepting applications, the state saw about 6,800 new students apply for the school vouchers.
Meanwhile, about 72% of public schools reported higher rates of chronic absenteeism, meaning students who miss at least 15 school days a year, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Most public schools also reported that the pandemic had negatively affected students’ socio-emotional and behavioral development.