October 26, 2021

School funding impasse bad for Iowa’s image, bad for Iowa’s future

May 1 is right around the corner, and Iowa's state-level elected leaders are still in Des Moines debating the amount of money our schools will need to operate for the 2015-16 school year.

The Iowa House and Senate are currently deadlocked, and in breech of Iowa law which states school funding for the SY 2015-16 should have been set by Feb. 2014. The Democratically controlled Senate originally wanted a 6 percent increase in public school aid for the coming year, but the Republican controlled House and Gov. Terry Branstad (R) have held fast at 1.25 percent allowable growth. The Senate lowered its bar in March with a compromise asking for 2.62 percent funding growth for schools. So far this has not moved in the House.

It's widely known that nearly 55 percent — our roughly $2.9 billion — of the state's budget goes to education. But why is this so often used as a negative talking point? Paying for the education of Iowa's youth should be a collective effort by all taxpayers, because everyone will reap the benefits. A good education for a child in this decade is a long-term investment that will become the economic driver of the next.

There have been rumblings from lawmakers that a compromise could be in the works, allowing 1.25 percent annual growth backed by House Republicans and the governor while using one-time money from the state's surplus as a type of bonus to temporarily reach the Democrats' desired 2.62 percent growth. But districts could only use the one-time cash for non-ongoing expenditures, and it's the ongoing operating costs that are really strapping many local schools.

This delay by the Legislature is causing public school districts to prepare for a worst case scenario. Many districts including PCM, Colfax-Mingo and Baxter Schools — the three institutions in western Jasper County — are planning for a flat-lined budget. Their business directors have planned for zero percent allowable growth. This is being repeated statewide, as districts cannot accurately plan programs, infrastructure and classroom curriculum upgrades. Some districts are being forced to raise tax levies to compensate.

For districts with falling enrollment this hits doubly hard as property tax revenue also falls but operating costs generally do not. For growing districts, the increasing strain on staff to provide quality education to a larger population requires more than just an adjustment for inflation from those with the power of the purse.

As Iowa's graduating seniors find growing demand from the workforce, so do the costs associated with providing increasingly complex education needed to prepare students. According the Iowa Legislature's calculations, a K-12 education cost state coffers $8,686 per student in 2015. This has increased from $5,122 in 2000. Data from the nonprofit, nonpartisan Annie E. Casey Foundation's Kids County Initiative shows Iowa ranked 24th in the U.S. in individual student spending in 2012, providing $11,929 per pupil when all funding sources are factored.

The uncertainty in funding also comes at a time when state and federal governments are asking more of schools, shifting to the uniform Common and Iowa Core curriculum standards. This means new educational materials and new training for teachers which all costs money — funds lawmakers appear not willing to give.

But this stalemate not only causes uncertainty for districts but emanates a perception of indifference to the needs of our public school districts. For some low income students, public education is the difference between a life of success and continuing the cycle of poverty. A strong public education system is a statement of foresight by government and its constituency. Public schools provide students the opportunity to gain the knowledge necessary to enter and stay in the middle class.

Iowa lawmakers not only need to pass a school funding bill, but an adequate school funding bill. It's the only way to ensure Iowa's recent economic turnaround continues. It's the best way to ensure Iowa youth are educated here and stay in here to put that knowledge to work, producing innovation and creating new businesses which hold strong communities together.

The General Assembly needs to talk, compromise and pass a bill.