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Last Upated: September 27, 2021
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.
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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. This means that you can visit multiple public schools in your area and discover which best fits your family. 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.
Some students participating in open enrollment, including those meeting certain income guidelines, are provided transportation to their public school of choice by their assigned district.
Find out more about public schools in your state here: Iowa’s 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 the 2019-2020 academic year. 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).
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. 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 more than 240 private schools across the state of Iowa. The average tuition for private schools in the state is $4,505 for elementary schools and $9,189 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). Additionally, families can save for K-12 private school tuition using tax-preferred 529 savings accounts.
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. You can find a list of these online schools at the Iowa Department of Education.
Iowa Connections Academy has a rolling enrollment policy based on capacity and approval from an applicant’s assigned school. Iowa Virtual Academy’s deadline was September 10.
As of September 2021, Iowa Connections Academy still has capacity for grades K-5, and Iowa Virtual Academy is accepting applications for grades K-12.
At Iowa Connections Academy, computers and internet subsidies are available for eligible families. Iowa Virtual Academy does not typically provide technology and wifi but, based on financial aid, a loaner computer may be available.
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. In the case that you decide to return to public school in the middle of the school year, your local district can choose if they will accept the work that was completed or not.
Iowa offers a funding assistance program called HSAP (Homeschool Assistance Program). Your local public school district may offer to resident or open-enrolled homeschooled students; however, your district is not required to provide this funding to you. 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 here. Note that homeschoolers are eligible to receive some special education services from Iowa school districts. Additionally, homeschool students in Iowa may still be eligible to participate in classes, sports, or activities at local public schools.
If your learning pod contains more than two families and will have 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 going to be enrolled in remote learning through your local public school and supervised by an adult in your learning pod, you do not need to register as a homeschool or private school. Keep in mind that you have multiple online learning options, including two permanent, full-time online schools that are available to students statewide.
For additional information about school choices in Iowa, visit these resources:
National School Choice Week 2022 will take place January 23 – 29, 2022. We encourage all schools, homeschool groups, organizations and individuals to join the celebration. Check out ideas, inspiration, and more information!
Iowa celebrated National School Choice Week 2021 with 331 virtual events and activities across the state. Click the button below to learn more about school choice in Iowa.
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