Ep. 240: Iowa Voter Poll with Trish Wilger

February 25, 2021

We’re joined by Trish Wilger, executive director of Iowa Alliance for Choice in Education (ACE), to discuss results from the Iowa K-12 & School Choice Survey.

Drew Catt: Hello, I’m Drew Catt and welcome back to EdChoice Chats. Today we’re discussing a new polling brief by Iowa Alliance for Choice in Education—or Iowa ACE—and EdChoice, titled Iowa K-12 & School Choice Survey. The purpose of this Iowa survey project was to measure public opinion on, and in some cases, awareness or knowledge of a range of K-12 education topics and school choice reforms. The survey of a statistically representative statewide sample of voters ages 18 and up who reside in Iowa was funded by EdChoice, developed by EdChoice and Iowa ACE, and conducted by Braun Research.

Here with me today to discuss the findings from the poll are Jordan Zakery, director of state relations here at EdChoice and Trish Wilger, executive director of Iowa Alliance for Choice in Education and Iowa Advocates for Choice in Education. Thank you for joining us, Trish.

Trish Wilger: Thank you for having me, Drew.

Drew Catt: Yeah, so I know that Iowa has had a private school choice program for about a decade and a half. Trish, what are all the options that families in Iowa have right now?

Trish Wilger: Well, as you mentioned, we’ve had a school tuition organization tax-credit program since 2006. So that has been a great way… Donors donate to a program. Those funds are turned around to tuition grants for students to attend an accredited non-public school in Iowa. So that has been a tremendous help to families in Iowa. We also have a tuition and textbook credit that’s available both to public and nonpublic school parents, where they can get a small tax credit of up to $250 that helps them with some of their educational expenses.

Drew Catt: And what about the charter sector or potentially even magnet schools? I know the charter sector isn’t that robust compared to some other states.

Trish Wilger: Exactly. In Iowa our charter school system is very small. Currently have two charter schools available out in the northwestern part of the state. So charter schools are just not an option for the vast majority of Iowa families here. There’s some movement in the legislature right now to expand that and make it a robust system. Magnet schools are sometimes available, mostly in the larger urban areas, but those are also not a very prevalent option that Iowa parents might be able to get to.

Drew Catt: Thank you for the kind of overarching view. So in the poll we asked Iowa parents where they would like to send their children to school if it was their choice. We did this using a split sample experiment of respondents, where half got one version of the question, and the other half another version. But however you look at the data, one result seems clear, and that’s Iowans exhibit a variety of preferences of schooling sectors. So nearly half, or about 48%, would choose a public district school. And more than a third a private school—nearly one out of 10—would homeschool their child. And even though the state, as you said, only has two charter schools, 7% would choose a charter school. Now this is compared to the Iowa enrollment distribution that this not reflect this whatsoever because there are 89% of parents enrolling their children in the public district schools. So Trish, why do you think there’s such a wide gap between what folks are getting and what they would actually prefer?

Trish Wilger: The gap is a result of that lack of options. We have a long way to go in giving parents the ability to access and afford the option that they would like. So I think that disparity really reflects what’s going on here and that people would choose a different option if they had access to it and the ability to reach out to it. It also reflects homeschooling in Iowa is growing steadily every year. I think that’s reflected here and in the findings and just the thought that parents in Iowa want some options and they don’t have them.

Drew Catt: And Jordan from your perspective, and getting to know the state more and more as time passes, what do you see is potential reason for this gap?

Jordan Zakery: Yeah, I think Trish said it perfectly. Parents do want choice. That’s what the gap is showing. Right now the big issue, like Trish mentioned, is access. Education is not a one size fits all type of thing, especially at the K-12 level where children have different demands, they have different needs when it comes to their education, and parents realize that. So going forward, this type of polling is showing that parents really do want these options and they need the access to these options.

Drew Catt: Well, getting a little into some of the current and proposed potential future options, Trish before seeing the polling results, how aware did you think Iowans were of tax credit scholarships and ESA?

Trish Wilger: As far as ESAs go, I thought awareness was probably pretty high, because we’ve been working on it in the legislature for quite some time. However, our efforts to have an ESA are commonly mislabeled vouchers, so that I feel would bring the awareness down. When you really stop and think about it there’s a lot of misinformation out there on this issue, mislabeling. So as far as STO goes, we’ve had that program for quite a while. So I thought the awareness would be pretty high, especially if you’re talking to parents who might have been investigating other options or something along those lines.

Jordan Zakery: Yeah. I also was intrigued by the results because I really did think the results would be mixed when it comes to awareness for ESAs and for the tax credit scholarship program. I really thought the tax credit scholarship program would be higher and the ESA’s would be lower. And I also thought that awareness would be higher because there are wonderful groups on the ground in Iowa, like IOAs that do a lot of education on the issue for parents. However, as Trish mentioned, sometimes there’s confusion. ESA’s get called vouchers. So I think what we’re finding from the polling from our awareness point of view is that we need to just continue on the grassroots side of things and making people aware of what program they have and about what programs they could have in the future. And making sure they’re educated on those programs as well.

Drew Catt: Yeah, it was striking to me that about 42, 43% of the parents said that they had never heard of either program type. Like to brief moment of silence for the passing of Douglas Adams, because yesterday in Britain was 42 and any Douglas Adams fans out there, 42 is that special, magical number that means anything you absolutely want it to mean. But I digress. So, the poll does attempt to get at what Iowans think of these programs, by informing respondents about them. This is one thing that I love about conducting these types of polls is actually trying to educate people about something. So more than two thirds actually support the state’s tax credit program, as Trish mentioned, the school tuition tax credit program, once they were provided with a definition of the actual program. This is a 33-point increase from the baseline results. And then there were about two thirds that support ESAs after they received the definition, which is not a 29-point bump in support after they received the definition.
So, it’s really interesting to me to see that increase in favor ability once Iowans are informed, especially of the specifics of Iowa’s tax credit scholarship program and also of ESAs. What do you think about that, Jordan?

Jordan Zakery: Yeah, well, that is a very huge jump and it’s very interesting, but I don’t think it’s specifically an Iowa thing. I think it’s a Iowa thing and it’s a national thing. It just speaks to how much education that as advocates we need to continue to do and work on so that parents understand what these programs are. But when they do understand it, it doesn’t shock me that with the description that they were very favorable towards tax-credit program and towards the ESA program. That speaks to our earlier discussion about parents wanting choice, parents needing options, and needing access.

So when getting that description, my thought on it is that they’re seeing these programs as ways to access the options that they desire. So it’s actually great to see that there is that jump and it’s great to see some of the favorability results because it’s confirming some of our thoughts that we have, some of the thoughts that we suspected.

Drew Catt: Yeah, Trish, you’ve been working day in, day out on this issue for quite some time in Iowa. Based on your experience, are there any particular groups of parents or just the general population that seem to be more or less knowledgeable about the state’s current school tuition tax credit program or school tuition in general? And also where does it seem that folks tend to get their information about these options?

Trish Wilger: The vast majority I would say who have knowledge are those who are in our non-public schools already, or even homeschooling. And they probably get information from us and other partners like Iowa Association of Christian Schools or Iowa Catholic Conference. However, when you look at the poll and see the overwhelming number, I think it was 92% of the people that responded to this, were or are public school parents. So, that gauges there awareness certainly and colors the discussion. So I would say parents that are already maybe kind of in the fold or know someone who’s in a non-public school, their neighbors, families, that kind of thing. Also, people who are seeking options because they’re unhappy where they are. So they’ve done some investigating and they’ve been looking at websites and calling our organization and things like that. We get a lot of contacts through our website asking, “My child has this issue at their local school. They’d like to make a switch, what can we do?” So I think there’s a lot of people that we hear from are seeking other options because something just isn’t working where they are.

Drew Catt: Yeah, so from the kind of larger trust sector, parent surveys that I’ve done in a few states, kind of what you were talking about of somebody that they know. So the responses that we hear for, how did you hear about this school choice program that your child is using? The overwhelming response is friends or relatives, and after that is church or spiritual or religious organization. So it’s all about the social network and who you know, and whether or not they’ve had exposure to something and are willing to talk to you about it, because they think it could be beneficial for you and or your family.

So another, what I think is an important finding is what Iowans think of different types of ESA programs. So this is another area where we did a split sample experiment. So we asked half of the respondents, whether or not they agreed that ESA should be universal and open to every family? And we asked the other half whether they agree that ESA should be limited to families based on financial need?

And we found that about two thirds agreed that ESA should be universal. And it was a little less than half that agreed that ESA should be limited to families based on financial aid. So Trish and Jordan, what are your thoughts on that?

Trish Wilger: Well, I thought that was very enlightening to see that universal was by far more favored, but I think it just goes to show that people feel everyone should get a chance. And the minute you place any limitations on a program, such as means testing or things like that, some people are going to miss out. I mean, there’s always the argument that nothing should help out current non-public school students because they’re already there, then obviously they can afford it, but that’s not the case. Now there’s a lot of families that are sacrificing and they’re on the bubble of making this work of being able to afford their child being in a private school. So I think this is beneficial, very supportive of making sure that everyone has an option here in Iowa and everyone should get an equal opportunity.

Jordan Zakery: Yeah, absolutely, Trish. I was also shocked that the universal result was higher than the needs-based, but like you touched upon it, I think that really just speaks to people wanting different options, wanting a robust environment of educational options. And then just having that access to those options. I expected the need-based portion to be higher just because ESAs do offer financial assistance to families who may not have the means to go to a private school or to homeschool. So I expected that to be higher than the universal, but with that said, it was encouraging to see the universal results being so high and just reaffirming that view that Iowans want choice.

Drew Catt: Without getting too much into the nuances of public funds for public education versus public funds for public schooling, it does seem that Iowans overall kind of have a general handle on how much private schools in the state cost.
So they were pretty much evenly split, 50/50 underestimate/overestimate when it came to a private K-12 tuition, the median respondent, or kind of the person in the middle for those who don’t have the stats brain said $5,000. The projected current school year tuition in Iowa is $5,279. Now let’s compare that to how much of the public schools in Iowa spent. Based on the most recent federally available statistics. So this have been for school year ‘17-18 instead of the ’20-21, $11,724 per student. So easily more than double the average private school tuition.

The median respondent had the exact same response as they did for the private school, so $5,000. Instead of it being a 50/50 split between the underestimate, overestimate, like for the private schools, it was 89% of the respondents underestimated how much the public schools are spending on students.

So yeah, I’m just wondering how many of those parents are kind of seeing that information and wondering why that discrepancy exists. And to me, working for EdChoice, I kind of want to know like, “I wonder how many parents could figure out a way to make those dollars work for their children through an ESA program or through a tax credit scholarship program?” So yeah. Any final closing thoughts that either of you have on that or anything else that came up from the poll or anything else that you think Iowans should hear about related to the polling results?

Jordan Zakery: Yeah. Drew, well, first I was really shocked at those findings, too. But one thing that really shocked me that I also wanted to touch upon before we leave today, were the demographic breakdowns, specifically for the ESAs and for the STO. Just looking at the chart for the breakdowns for ESA favorability, it was really interesting. And what I want to get at is that across the board people from different demographics seem to support having that option. The general population have 65% favorability. Current school parents all the way up to 77%. And then when you just break it down by where people live, and you’re looking at urban, suburban, and rural, the suburban and rurals had 65% favorability, and that wasn’t too far off from the 69% for urban communities. So what I’m seeing from this data is that people statewide are favorable towards ESAs, regardless of where they’re living right now.

Drew Catt: And I can’t help but jump in. And just for those listening, whether or not you have the brief pulled up in front of you, and that’s not just for ESAs in general, that was specifically for universal ESAs. Yes.

Jordan Zakery: Yes, so that to me was just something I feel like people need to know about. And it was something that was just very enlightening and very promising to see that. And even across party lines, regardless of your political beliefs, Democrats had 65% favorability; Republicans had 66% favorability. And interesting enough, Independents had 67% favorability towards ESAs. So it’s telling me that this is not a very partisan issue and that people across party lines, people across where they live, people across the state in general are favorable towards ESAs.

Trish Wilger: Yeah, and I would just add that on the demographic issue that Democrats and Republicans on many of these answers, they’re neck in neck for their support of this thing, which is interesting when you’re talking about ESAs, universal ESAs, the STL. That really stood out to me, as well as the geographic and where people live as Jordan was talking about. But the piece that just stands out to me overall is kind of a summary comment on the survey is that when Iowans are given facts as opposed to rhetoric and misinformation and propaganda, if you will, then they’re in support of it. If we can boil it down to the nuts and bolts facts of what these programs are, Iowans are in support of them.

Drew Catt: Yeah, and especially because we strive to just boil down the definition exactly as it’s laid out in the statute and without kind of glossing over anything or asking any leading questions, which I think just helps solidify kind of the importance of these results and hopefully the more, the broader applicability of these results to everyone within the state. Well, thank you both so much for taking the time to join me today.

All right. Well that wraps up this edition of EdChoice Chats. Be sure to check out the description of this podcast for a link to the polling brief and be sure to subscribe to our podcast wherever you get them, so you never miss another episode. If you have any questions or comments about the polling results, feel free to reach out to us on social media. You can find us at @edchoice. Until next time, take care.