We’re just starting the third week of the legislative session and school funding will take center stage this week.
It’s a debate that’s already a year overdue.
That’s because Governor Branstad and Republicans refused to follow our law that requires us to set school funding nearly two years in advance. The law, which has been on the books for 20 years, is designed to guarantee our k-12 schools are the top priority. The state budget is then crafted after our schools are appropriately funded.
School funding bills in the Legislature often turn into confusing debates because of the complexity of school financing. Too often, legislators skew the numbers and use it as an excuse to shortchange our schools.
The debate this week is about basic state aid for schools, called supplemental state aid. It’s the main source of revenue for school districts and pays for things like teachers, transportation, and books.
Earlier this month, the Governor recommended that Iowa schools get a 1.25% increase in supplemental aid next year (2015-2016 school year), which would be the 3rd lowest on record for Iowa.
Republicans in the Iowa House are following his lead this week and plan to pass a school funding bill over to the Senate.
Over the last week, we’ve been hearing from parents, educators, school board members, and superintendents about the impact the Republican’s plan will have on local schools.
Unfortunately, the news isn’t good. A survey of Iowa superintendents found the plan would lead to crowded classrooms, fewer teachers, and outdated textbooks.
Because of the school funding formula, the Republican plan would also force half of our school districts to raise property taxes just to keep the level of funding the same as this year.
In offering their plan, the Governor and Republicans say the 1.25% increase is adequate because a) our schools already have plenty of money and b) that’s all the state can afford this year. Those arguments are both wrong.
First, our k-12 schools are the largest piece of the state budget, as they should be. There is nothing more important than educating our kids. It’s a wise investment in our future and it’s the key to building the skilled workforce we need to compete in today’s global economy.
Republicans are using an education reform package approved a few years ago to boost student achievement as an excuse to underfund basic school aid. The reality is the money schools receive for education reform is set aside for specific things like teacher mentoring and reading assistance. It can’t be used to keep the lights on, buy textbooks, or hire another teacher to reduce class size.
It’s also important to remember Iowa per pupil funding has dropped steadily over the last decade and we are down to 35th in the nation at $1,612 below the national average. If the Republican plan becomes law, we will drop down to 40th.
The Republican claim that the state can’t afford additional school aid is also misleading. Right now, Iowa has the 9th highest reserve funds in the US and we will end the fiscal year in June with over $1 billion in surplus and reserves. It doesn’t mean we should spend every dollar we have, but we can make a reasonable investment in our schools while keeping the state budget balanced. We can do that without raising taxes or taking money out of our savings accounts.
Our school leaders are telling us that we’ve reached a tipping point. Stagnant school funding has made it hard for our schools to do just the basics. They’re willing to take on additional responsibility and work to ensure our students get a world class education. But they can’t do it on the cheap.
It’s time for us to renew our commitment to education in Iowa this year and invest in our kids. The message we’ve heard from parents and school leaders is crystal clear: shortchanging our children will shortchange Iowa’s future.