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Conservative lawmakers have once again introduced legislation to create an education savings account program in Iowa. ESAs are the latest iteration of school voucher programs that differ in that they allow parents to use state funds for a wider array of educational services beyond tuition for private schools. ESAs are heavily promoted by conservative political organizations and think tanks around the nation, such as the American Federation for Children and EdChoice, and by affiliated local organizations with a significant presence in Des Moines, such as the Iowa Alliance for Choice in Education.

Despite glowing pronouncements of “win-win” situations by proponents, Iowans would do well to question the wisdom of this legislation.

Proponents of these programs have made big promises over the years that private school competition will lead to achievement gains in both the private and public sectors and school competition will foster greater accountability. But there is good reason to question these assertions.

A recent review of voucher programs by Stanford University scholar Martin Carnoy indicates any positive effects associated with private voucher schools have more to do with differences in the students they serve than with the classroom instruction and curricula they offer. This mirrors the findings of a Wall Street Journal review of the nation’s oldest voucher program in Milwaukee indicating there is little reason to believe school competition alone will improve educational outcomes.

More troublesome, a recent investigative series by the Orlando Sentinel exposed widespread fraud and profiteering in Florida’s large and lightly regulated voucher school program. Closer to home, Iowans should think carefully about the implications of pulling state funds from rural Iowa communities struggling with school closings and district consolidation.

However, there is a more basic question I think Iowans should consider. What is conservative about school voucher programs and ESAs?

There is no one definition of conservatism. It is a term that has taken on different meanings throughout history. But, an organizing principle of conservative thought going back to Edmund Burke is opposition to radical change and a preference for the preservation of traditional institutions and customs. American conservatives look to the past for inspiration and venerate the founders of the republic as a source of wisdom to guide our path into the future. It is a political disposition perhaps best captured by William F. Buckley’s declaration that conservatism “stands athwart history, yelling Stop.”

It is difficult then to understand why self-described conservatives seek to radically change one of the foundational institutions of the American republic. Among the earliest proponents for a publicly funded, nonsectarian education system were luminaries now revered by conservatives, such as Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Benjamin Rush and Daniel Webster. Madison famously wrote a public education system is essential to ensuring the viability of the American experiment in democratic governance, stating a “popular government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a Prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy; or, perhaps both.”

The common school movement they inspired laid the foundation for the institution we have today, and Iowa has been a leader in every step of its development. Built upon the pillars of public funding, local control and universality, public education is an historical institution that has served the republic well.

Yet, self-described conservatives now seek to radically alter the institution in ways that will have a profound impact on future generations. This is not to say the current system is above reproach. We can and should critically evaluate the institution and engage in reasoned debate on how to improve the system for the betterment of the republic. This is especially true for those who wish to claim the mantle of conservatism.

Voucher school and ESA programs constitute a radical departure from the past, and Iowans of all political stripes would do well to think carefully about the impacts and potential outcomes of this legislation.

Scott Ellison is an assistant professor of educational foundations specializing in global and national trends in education policy. The opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not imply endorsement by the University of Northern Iowa.

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