In Tuesday’s early hours, the Iowa Legislature passed 2023’s first school-choice bill, setting the standard with a universal education savings account that allows families to direct some of their school tax dollars to providers of their choice. Iowa is the first big domino to fall in what should be a jam-packed year for education freedom.
For the first time, every Iowa family will soon have the power to customize its children’s education. Iowans, like most Americans, have long supported school choice, but this victory did not happen by accident. The Iowa school-choice story is instructive for every state with an uphill climb against entrenched special interests.
For most of recent history, parents and school-choice champions faced incredibly strong headwinds from better-funded, ruthless opponents who dominated legislatures and election campaigns.
For years, committed advocates worked to establish their voice in statehouses. Tuesday’s news shows the power of engaging in elections, too.
During the last two legislative sessions, Iowa Republican lawmakers stood with Democratic colleagues to block the education savings account’s passage. This dynamic was not new or unique to Iowa — GOP legislators are often a key barrier to educational freedom across the country.
Whether they actually believe the debunked myth that school choice harms rural areas or they answer to special-interest groups fighting to protect the status quo, they’ve sometimes joined with unions and often-unified Democratic opposition to defeat school choice even in red states.
But Gov. Kim Reynolds’ bold response at the ballot box set a new standard for school-choice champions.
Tuesday’s news will make headlines, and rightly so, but the story of school choice in Iowa did not start in January. Champions have been striving for education freedom in the state for decades. Last spring, their efforts got a major boost when Reynolds responded to Republican incumbents who opposed school choice by endorsing their primary opponents. As we have across the country, American Federation for Children stood strongly behind these efforts.
Buoyed by Reynolds’ fortitude, AFC Action Fund and our partners invested more than $450,000 to make sure Iowa voters knew which legislators had fought against more options for kids. This move was significant and had no guarantee of success. Beating an incumbent, after all, is the most difficult thing to do in politics.
Reynolds had to trust that Iowans wanted something different — or she would face another legislative session with emboldened opponents. Playing it safe to avoid gaining adversaries would have been the easy option, but we have no interest in accepting a status quo that’s failed countless children.
Especially after the fiascos of the last several years, more parents than ever have gotten a window into the reality of education and are ready to step up and make a difference. It was time to be bold.
The bet paid off. Four incumbents who stood in the way of more opportunities for Iowa children lost their primaries while eight candidates who support school choice advanced. As expected, Gov. Reynolds won a resounding reelection victory in November.
Education reformers can and should celebrate this week, but the groundwork for this victory was laid long ago — and we should look toward the next Iowa and what it will take to ensure voters’ wishes are respected and education freedom is advanced. To succeed, we must keep taking the fight to our opponents on every battleground, including elections.
We’re firmly committed to this goal. Nationally, AFC Action Fund and its affiliated state political committees spent nearly $9 million in the fight for education freedom, targeting 69 anti-school-choice incumbents in state legislatures and beating 40 of them, an incredibly difficult task in any race.
Overall, we won 282 out of 372 races, a 76% success rate that shows, more than anything else, parents are fed up and realizing their power at the ballot box and in the statehouse. Especially after 2020, parents are winning, and the establishment is on its way to more losses in the coming months and years.
Already this year, Florida, Utah, Oklahoma, Nebraska and Idaho have introduced school-choice bills, with more to come. More states than ever are embracing the new rivalry to outdo each other in empowering parents, and it’s a competition in which every family stands to win. Forging ahead in this exciting new world of parent power and education freedom, we will stand behind parents every step of the way.
Tommy Schultz is the CEO of the American Federation for Children.