Late last month, the state of Iowa introduced education legislation that can radically improve school choice options. The Iowa education savings account program (Iowa ESA program) was passed by both legislative chambers and signed into law by Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds.
Governor Reynolds has strongly supported this bill, called the Students First Act, as she believes it will set a different standard for Iowa education. After the bill passed both chambers, Reynolds signed it into law on January 24, 2023.
What is the Iowa ESA Program?
The Students First Act created the Iowa ESA Program, which makes state funding available to every student in Iowa between kindergarten and high school. The funds are placed into education savings accounts and can be used by eligible families to cover qualified educational expenses, such as tuition, fees, and books.
Students and parents who opt into the program will receive approximately $7,600 annually if they exit their assigned school districts. However, the amount placed in the ESA may change as it is based on the rough cost per student for those attending public schools.
Parents who enroll their students in an accredited private school can use the funds for private school tuition and other expenses related to educating the students.
Who is Eligible to Participate in the Iowa ESA Program?
This program is slowly being introduced and will ultimately lead to universal school choice for all families in Iowa. The staggered approach spans three years, starting with the 2023-2024 school year.
ESAs are available for all Iowa students who meet the following criteria:
Year 1: 2023-2024 School Year
- All entering kindergarten students
- All students enrolled in a public school
- Private school students with a household income at or below 300% of the Federal Poverty Guidelines. These guidelines vary by family size and are updated annually.
Year 2: 2024-2025 School Year
- All entering kindergarten students
- All students enrolled in a public school district
- Students enrolled in a private school with a household income at or below 400% of the Federal Poverty Guidelines. These figures will be updated in January 2024.
Year 3: 2025-2026 School Year
- All students in Iowa, regardless of income
The Iowa ESA program does not allow accounts for homeschooled students or those who attend an unaccredited private school. However, students who were previously homeschooled but who will be enrolled in a private school in the upcoming year will be eligible to participate in the ESA program. These students must be enrolled full-time to be eligible.
The Iowa ESA program does require families to provide proof of income when applying for the 2023-2024 and 2024-2025 school years. However, the Iowa Department of Education still needs to release information about what documentation will be accepted to demonstrate income eligibility.
ESA funding is also available to families that currently receive other tuition assistance. Other forms of tuition assistance are not factored into whether a family can establish an ESA.
What Does the Iowa ESA Program Mean for Eligible Families?
The passage of the Iowa ESA program is a huge victory for families who want to opt out of public schools and select private school options. The benefits are especially vital to middle- and low-income families that could previously not afford private schools for their children. The cost of private school tuition has limited the options for these families for decades. The Iowa ESA program breaks down these barriers and lets all families choose the right option for their students.
While the Iowa ESA program promotes flexibility with school choice, it’s also not a free-for-all. Iowa requires that private schools be accredited to meet the state’s Department of Education standards. These accreditation requirements may limit new and innovative learning models, but they also ensure that all schools meet a minimum standard when providing education to students. This often means that elements of a standard curriculum must be followed, and students may be required to participate in standardized testing.
How Do I Apply for the Iowa ESA Program?
The applications for the Iowa ESA program are still under development. However, once finished, they will be accessible on the Iowa Department of Education website. In addition, details will be provided related to application requirements and documentation that families must provide to demonstrate they meet the eligibility requirements.
Applications for the 2023-2024 school year will be due on June 30, 2023, and remain valid for only one year. Families who want to continue participating in the program must reapply every school year.
Additionally, the state of Iowa still needs to identify a third-party contractor to implement and administer the ESA program. However, the proposals were due in mid-February, and the state will announce a decision soon. Once a contractor has been identified, families will work directly with them to submit reimbursement documentation and access the ESA funds.