Guest Post: Reynolds’ voucher program is about destroying public education

Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds reacts before signing a bill that creates education savings accounts, Tuesday, Jan. 24, 2023, at the Statehouse in Des Moines, Iowa. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

By Guest Post

May 1, 2024

Former Iowa school superintendent says Gov. Kim Reynolds is following right-wing playbook to ruin public education


The first year of private school vouchers is ending for Iowa students from preschool to 12th grade. The vouchers, created under the Students First Act, provide public money for parents to pay their children’s tuition to an accredited Iowa private school.

“Allowing parents to choose the education that’s best for their children levels the playing field and creates equal opportunities for Iowa’s students,” Gov. Kim Reynolds said, describing the voucher program’s goal.

But does the program meet that goal? To answer that, it’s useful to examine the experiences of states that have similar systems.

Ohio Republicans in the state’s House of Representatives said their EdChoice vouchers plan would “safeguard lower-income families and offers options beyond traditional public schools.”

But instead of promoting choice, much of the nearly $400 million for expanded Ohio school vouchers went to students who already attend private schools, the editorial board for and The Plain Dealer reported. They add: “The law’s lack of transparency and data-reporting guardrails forces parents making ‘school choice’ for academic reasons, rather than out of religious or other motivations, to blindly assume that a private or parochial school is the best choice, without actual data on educational performance.”

Arizona has a similar story. Save Our Schools Arizona, a public school advocacy organization, reported that the state’s voucher program went from costing $64 million a year in 2024 to $125 million a year in 2025. Some 75% of voucher users had no history of public school attendance.

Arizona now faces a $400 million budget shortfall this year and a $450 million deficit in the coming fiscal year. The deficiencies are mainly due to the skyrocketing costs of a 2022 voucher program expansion and a 2021 tax cut that went into full effect in November 2023. The price tag for Arizona’s voucher program increased by $64.5 million in FY 2024 and by $125.4 million in FY 2025.

“By chronically underfunding Arizona public schools and pushing through unaccountable universal Empowerment Scholarship Accounts” – the voucher program – districts across the state are forced ‘to make cuts that negatively affect students, educators, and their communities,’” the group says.

Also: In Arkansas, 95% of new voucher users have children who were already enrolled in private schools. In Florida, that number is 70%.

An analysis by Education Week magazine found 29 states and the District of Columbia have at least one private school choice program as of March 22, 2024. Of those, 12 states, including Iowa, have at least one private school choice program that’s universally accessible to K-12 students. Whether it’s called an education savings account, tax-credit scholarship or voucher, all are generally designed to use public taxpayer money to pay for private schools, Politifact reported.

Republican legislatures control nearly all the states that have or are considering private school choice programs. Is this coincidence, or due to some driving force?

Consider this: In Texas, Gov. Greg Abbott received $6 million from pro-voucher billionaire Steve Yass of Pennsylvania, Abbott’s largest-ever campaign contribution. Trump education secretary Betsy DeVos of Michigan and her pro-voucher American Federation for Children PAC poured roughly $500,000 into each of nine key Texas house races for a total of $4 million.

Texas’s voucher bill supposedly promotes choice for students and parents, but the text says “a private school is not subject to federal and state laws regarding provision of educational services to a child with disabilities in the same manner as a public school.”

In 2015, DeVos said she had decided “to stop taking offense at the suggestion that we are buying influence. Now I simply concede the point. They are right. We do expect some things in return.”

The forces behind school voucher plans embrace hardball tactics. In “Kochland: The Secret History of Koch Industries and Corporate Power in America,” Christopher Leonard wrote that the political network conservative industrialists Charles and David Koch established “says it wants to remake public education. That means destroying it.”

Charles Koch backs Americans for Prosperity (AFP), a libertarian-conservative political advocacy group. In a recording obtained by Nashville TV station WTVF, AFP Tennessee State Director Tori Venable can be heard threatening a Republican legislator who was reluctant to back a voucher bill. “I can’t protect you if you ain’t on the right side of this,” Venable said. Rep. Todd Warner voted against the bill anyway. Meanwhile, a memo attributed to an AFP staff member said legislators “won’t have jobs” if they voted against the voucher plan.

Reynolds also uses such strategies. After an education savings account proposal failed in the 2022 Iowa General Assembly, she endorsed candidates in primaries against some Republican legislators who opposed the bill as they sought to protect their local schools and communities.

Who pushed Reynolds to exile fellow Republicans? During last year’s legislative session, she posed for photos several times with Corey DeAngelis, a self-proclaimed school choice evangelist with DeVos’s American Federation for Children. And Reynolds recently was named co-chair, with former Arizona governor Doug Ducey, of the Education Freedom Alliance, which promotes and lobbies for vouchers. It encourages 26 states, all under Republican legislative control, to pass universal “education freedom” policies by 2026.

Coalition members include the Job Creators Network, the Committee to Unleash Prosperity, and the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). Who are these folks Reynolds now associates with?

Far-right conservative megadonor Bernie Marcus, the Home Depot co-founder and former CEO, established the Job Creators Network.

The Committee to Unleash Prosperity supports debunked supply-side economic theories. It has ties to the Koch brothers, ALEC, and the conservative Heritage Foundation. Its founders include Fox financial pundit and former Trump administration official Larry Kudlow, former Forbes magazine executive and Republican presidential candidate Steve Forbes, and Reagan administration economist Arthur Laffer.

The Center for Media and Democracy describes ALEC as “a corporate bill mill. It is not just a lobby or a front group; it is much more powerful than that. Through ALEC, corporations hand state legislators their wish lists to benefit their bottom line.”

With her leadership position in the Education Freedom Alliance, Reynolds exposes her real plan for education. She claims parents wanted choice and that vouchers would provide opportunity; she really was pushing an agenda from powerful, rich, far-right billionaires who want to destroy public education and create segregation by socio-economic status, disability, language, and race.

Perhaps Reynolds is thinking like Scott Cepicky, the lead school voucher bill sponsor in the Tennessee House of Representatives. Cepicky, whose children attend a private religious school, said he believes that “blowing it all back up” is the only way to “fix” the state’s public schools, which he describes as “terrible.” In a recording aired by WTVF, Cepicky says his goal for Tennessee public education is to “throw the whole freaking system in the trash.”

Regardless, it’s evident by the company she keeps that Reynolds doesn’t work for Iowans. She works for outside groups that push extreme right-wing agendas, not only in Iowa, but anywhere Republican majorities control legislatures. Laws providing educational vouchers for private schools aren’t about giving parents more school choice. It’s about destroying public education.

The question for Iowans is whether the governor and the legislature should work for the people or for billionaires aiming to transform the nation to fit their elitist ideas.

Patrick O’Donnell is the former Sioux Center Community School District superintendent and a former teacher. He can be reached by email here.



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