Iowa’s First Year of ESAs and Where They Are Going

Over 18,500 students in 96 counties have been approved and are taking advantage of Iowa’s “Student First” ESA program.

Iowa’s lawmakers enacted the Students First Act in late-January 2023, creating universal education savings accounts (ESAs) for Iowa students. Funded with the state’s share of per pupil spending, which is currently $7,635, the ESAs will soon be available to every student in Iowa regardless of income level or current public/private enrollment status.

The phased-in program has begun with incoming kindergarteners and all public-school students who are switching to a private school for the upcoming academic year. Families with children currently enrolled in private schools will become eligible over the next three years, subject to income limitations. Beginning in the 2025–2026 school year, all K–12 students in Iowa will be eligible regardless of income.

What Is an ESA?

The purpose of an ESA is to allow state-level tax dollars to follow students to the school of their choice, rather than sit with the specific schools to which they are assigned whether or not they enroll. ESAs provide parents the flexibility to customize the education of their children. They differ from regular school vouchers in that vouchers are typically designated for specific purposes, mostly to pay for tuition, whereas ESAs can be used for a variety of purposes and even carry over from year to year for future educational expenses.

Who Applied for the ESAs?

Before the June 30 deadline, 29,025 students applied for ESAs, and of them 18,627 have been approved, with fewer than 1,000 applications still under review by the Department of Education. So far, students receiving ESAs reside in 96 of Iowa’s 99 counties. Notably, 42 counties do not have private schools, but nearly all of them have students participating in the program, highlighting the demand for options in K-12 education.

According to data from the state, 40 percent of the applicants are students planning to move from public to private schools, while 60 percent are already attending private schools. The final number of participants and other program details will be available when certified school enrollment numbers are finalized later this fall. 

Counties with ESA participants

The map below shows the number of approved ESA applications from each county. While more applications were submitted than approved, the data for unapproved applications has not been released yet. Polk County has the most private schools in the state, at 22, so it is not surprising the county saw more applications approved than any other county: 3,144. Other counties with high numbers of approved applications include Linn, Scott, Sioux, Black Hawk, and Woodbury. The counties with the lowest numbers were Emmet, Clarke, Cass, Montgomery, Monroe, Wayne, and Fremont. The only counties to have no approved applicants are Decatur, Louisa, and Ringgold Counties.

National Trend on School Choice

School choice” is a term for flexibility in the many ways students access K–12 education. Policies can include options among public schools, private schools, charter schools, home schooling, and any other learning environment families choose for their children.

Iowa’s ESA law jump-started a wave of school choice legislation across the nation in 2023. This year alone, 112 bills were introduced in 40 states across the country related to education savings accounts, vouchers, tax credit scholarships, and refundable tax credits. Of those bills, 79 percent involved ESAs. While not all bills passed into law, seven states did enact new school choice programs, most of them ESAs, while nine states expanded existing programs.  Policy experts predict school choice programs will continue to grow in the near future.

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