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A new program in Iowa would enlist government aid to pay for private schools

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

School choice is a term that often leads to heated debate, especially when it comes to programs that give families public dollars to send their kids to private schools. Barely a month into 2023 and these programs are already having a banner year. Families in Iowa and Utah will soon be able to get government help to pay for their kids' private education. And in several other states, lawmakers are weighing whether to adopt or expand similar programs. For more, I'm joined by NPR education correspondent Cory Turner. Good morning.

CORY TURNER, BYLINE: Hey, Ayesha.

RASCOE: So can you give us a quick refresher? What do we need to know about these private school choice programs and how they work?

TURNER: Yeah, so the term folks are probably most familiar with is vouchers. There are also education savings accounts. But honestly, I'm going to lump them together because they are both essentially about the same thing, which is states letting families spend state taxpayer dollars in non-public schools. And that includes private religious schools and, in some cases, even homeschooling. As for why we're seeing this big push now, especially towards bigger statewide programs, I don't think it's a stretch to say the pandemic played a really big role here, Ayesha. Fights over public school closures, masking requirements, now fights over critical race theory and book banning have really, I think, helped Republicans sell vouchers, even in states where it wasn't that long ago voters were pretty skeptical.

RASCOE: So let's cut to the chase, though. Like, is there evidence that these private school choice programs are good for kids?

TURNER: So there are a couple different answers to this. First, it depends on where you live. Private school choice cannot help you if there is no private school to choose, which is the case in roughly 40% of counties in Iowa.

RASCOE: Wow.

TURNER: Also, even though vouchers are commonly billed as a helping hand to low-income families especially, they're often not enough to fully cover tuition, especially at a good private school. As for the research on student performance, it's complicated, especially when you start talking about these bigger statewide programs. So I reached out to a guy who knows this research backwards and forwards. His name is Douglas Harris at Tulane.

DOUGLAS HARRIS: When we looked at all the evidence, students who use vouchers either do no better or, in some cases, worse than they would have done if they had just attended traditional public schools.

TURNER: And, Ayesha, that helps explain why the messaging now, as opposed to what we've heard in the past, is really less about academics and much more about politics and these culture war issues we mentioned.

RASCOE: Teachers unions and Democrats argue that vouchers hurt public schools, which educate the vast majority of America's children. Are they right about that?

TURNER: Well, and it's not just Democrats. In Utah, we saw the state's Republican-dominated school board vote against their new plan. I think there is legitimate concern that these programs could undermine public education, at least in the long run. Because it is true for every child who leaves a public school, that school loses at least some funding at the state level. It is worth noting, though, at least in the early years, Iowa's program is actually projected to most benefit students who were never in a public school.

RASCOE: So, OK, explain that to me.

TURNER: Yeah, it's a little counterintuitive. I was digging through projections for Iowa's program, and it confused me. So I called up Ben Erwin. He's a senior policy analyst with the nonpartisan Education Commission of the States.

BEN ERWIN: These programs are not necessarily resulting in a mass exodus of public school students, but a lot of students who are already in private schools and able to take advantage of the program to cover a portion of that tuition.

TURNER: Erwin says this is true in Arizona's program and probably of Iowa's, given these projections. In fact, looking through them, Ayesha, the vast majority of kids that will be helped by Iowa's program in the first three years were already enrolled in private schools, and the majority of those, we know, are from middle- and upper-income families. Now, whether you think that's good policy or bad policy, it is clearly a huge new expense for the state - about $345 million a year in Iowa - and it is a fundamental expansion of its role in education.

RASCOE: So one last question. Are private schools that accept this public money going to have to meet certain requirements that public schools do?

TURNER: So it depends on the program, but for the most part, no. Private schools are not held to the same standards that public schools are. I have seen examples of private schools in voucher states turning kids away for a whole host of reasons - test scores, religion, gender identity. I still personally remember a mother I met when I was reporting in Indiana who wanted to use a voucher to enroll her son, who has autism, at their parish school. But the head of school refused, saying they just couldn't meet his needs. You know, some states have responded by including anti-discrimination language in their private school choice bills, but this remains a very real concern.

RASCOE: NPR education correspondent Cory Turner, thank you so much.

TURNER: You're welcome, Ayesha. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.
Cory Turner reports and edits for the NPR Ed team. He's helped lead several of the team's signature reporting projects, including "The Truth About America's Graduation Rate" (2015), the groundbreaking "School Money" series (2016), "Raising Kings: A Year Of Love And Struggle At Ron Brown College Prep" (2017), and the NPR Life Kit parenting podcast with Sesame Workshop (2019). His year-long investigation with NPR's Chris Arnold, "The Trouble With TEACH Grants" (2018), led the U.S. Department of Education to change the rules of a troubled federal grant program that had unfairly hurt thousands of teachers.