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Last Upated: January 24, 2023
Iowa parents, you have access to more K-12 education options than you might realize. Navigating these options is an important task, one that can make all the difference in the world to your child. It’s also one you’re well-equipped to accomplish!
This post will breakdown the six types of schools available to you in Iowa, as well as provide some extra resources. Iowa families can choose from traditional public schools, public charter schools, public magnet schools, private schools, online academies, homeschooling, and learning pods.
Looking for special education options? You can learn what special education services are available in Iowa at the Ultimate Guide to Special Education.
First off, most children in Iowa (and in America) attend traditional public schools. Traditional public schools are free to attend, open to all students, operated by school districts, and funded by taxpayers. Iowa spends, on average, $11,907 per public school student each year.
Iowa has unrestricted open enrollment for public school. Open enrollment refers to whether parents can choose to send their child to any public school in Iowa, regardless of where they live or where the school is located. Based on Iowa’s recently-expanded laws, families can apply to any traditional public school, even one in another district, at any time during the year. Of course, schools may deny a request if there is not enough classroom space. For a real-world example of the transfer process, check out Davenport Community Schools’ open enrollment application.
Open enrollment is a valuable option because traditional public schools aren’t all the same: They may differ in learning methods and one may just “feel different” than another to you. Keep in mind that some students participating in open enrollment, including those meeting certain income guidelines, are even provided transportation to their public school of choice by their assigned district.
Find out more about public schools in your state at the Iowa Department of Education.
Depending on where you are located, you may be able to choose a charter school for your child. Charter schools are tuition-free public schools that have extra freedom to innovate with curriculum and learning methods. Iowa enacted a charter school law in 2003 but there are just two authorized charter schools as of 2020. These are located in Storm Lake and Maynard, Iowa.
The state passed a charter school expansion law in 2021. Now, groups looking to start a charter school can apply directly to the state Department of Education for approval (rather than their local school board). There are currently two more charter schools in the approval process – one is a hybrid online school for students across Iowa and the other has a mission of improving graduation rates in Southwest Iowa.
Each public charter school has a charter which explains the school’s purpose and what specific community need it serves. For example, that could be providing a technical track or offering a rigorous, literacy-based curriculum. If there are more families seeking admittance to a charter school than there are seats, a lottery system is usually used to randomly determine admittance.
You can also choose magnet schools! Magnet schools are district-run public schools that allow kids to focus on a specific learning track, such as engineering or the arts. Magnet schools teach all subjects through the lenses of that specific track. Iowa has several magnet schools scattered throughout the state. In the Cedar Rapids Community School District, for instance, there are five magnet schools, including Johnson STEAM Academy, which has been ranked as one of the best magnet schools in the United States.
You can read more about magnet schools at the Iowa Department of Education. If there is a magnet school near you with a theme that interests your child, this could be a great option to consider.
Iowa families can also consider private schools, nonpublic schools that charge tuition. Private schools may offer a unique curriculum, smaller class sizes, or a faith-based tradition. There are about 240 private schools across the state of Iowa. The average tuition for private schools in the state is $4,520 for elementary schools and $9,033 for high schools.
In Iowa, families can take a tax deduction of up to $500 per student for nonpublic school expenses. While the average tax credit amount is relatively small, every little bit can help. Also, children in Iowa are eligible for scholarships through the School Tuition Organization Tax Credit as long as their family income doesn’t exceed 400% federal poverty guidelines ($106,000 for a family of four in 2021-2022). Finally, keep in mind that families can save for K-12 private school tuition using tax-preferred 529 savings accounts.
Iowa’s new ESA, passed in 2023, gives parents funds to pay for tuition and other expenses at accredited private schools. The program will phase in over three years. Initially, children enrolled in private schools currently will be eligible in the fall of 2023, and public school students will become eligible at the end of the rollout process.
Whether your child wants to accelerate learning or needs a quieter, less stressful environment in which to focus, you may be interested in trying virtual school.
Iowa offers several free, full-time online learning options for students, such as Iowa Connections Academy and Iowa Virtual Academy. In order for funding to follow a child to online school, families need to fill out the Iowa Open Enrollment Application with their assigned district for approval; this could potentially be denied if completed after the open enrollment period closes in the spring.
In addition to these statewide options, several districts currently offer online programs serving all grades K-12. You can find a full list of online school options at the Iowa Department of Education.
High school students across the state also use online courses for credit recovery through Kirkwood Community College. Enrollment must take place through your local school.
To read more about online learning in Iowa, check out the Digital Learning Collaborative’s state profile.
Iowa families can also choose homeschooling, the process of parents educating students at home. As both technology and school choices have spread in Iowa, homeschooling is an increasingly popular choice.
In Iowa, notice of your intent to homeschool is required by September 1 or within 14 days of starting unless you are homeschooling via private instruction (IPI or PI). It is recommended that you formally withdraw your student from public school so they are not marked truant.
The state does not require standardized testing for most homeschoolers but in some cases requires parents to teach specific subjects, like math and reading. In Iowa, your homeschooled student may still be eligible to participate in classes, sports, or activities at a local public school through dual enrollment. Additionally, homeschoolers are eligible to receive some special education services from Iowa school districts.
Iowa offers a funding assistance program called HSAP (Homeschool Assistance Program). Your local public school district may offer this program to resident or open-enrolled homeschooled students; however, your district is not required to provide this funding to you. Finally, as of 2021, homeschool families are eligible for a parental tuition tax credit of up to $500 per student.
Check out resources about homeschooling specific to Iowa.
Micro-schools, pods, pandemic pods, and learning pods all refer to the same concept: students gathering together in a small group – with adult supervision – to learn, explore, and socialize. Pods themselves can take a variety of legal forms, but in general they can be separated into two categories: self-directed pod (homeschool, homeschool collaborative, or micro-school) and learning support pod. It’s important to understand what kind of pod you are signing up for and the requirements that go along with it. Learn more about learning pods.
If your learning pod or micro-school is choosing its own curriculum and each family is directing their own children’s schooling, it likely qualifies as a homeschool in Iowa. Read more about the requirements for homeschooling and get tips from HSLDA.
If your learning pod contains more than two families and will have parents or other teachers leading unique classes just for your school, it may qualify as a private school. You can read more about what Iowa classifies as a private school, how they’re regulated, and how to start one.
If your child is enrolled in an existing online school or local public, charter, or private school, and uses that school’s curriculum under the supervision of an adult in a learning pod, you do not need to register as a homeschool or private school.
For additional information about school choices in Iowa, visit these resources:
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