A school funding mystery

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Gov. Terry Branstad’s staff has quietly rolled the state’s public school funding structure into the garage. There’s paper over the windows. But we’re hearing some noises.

The governor told the Farm Bureau’s recent annual meeting that there’s some serious tinkering going on, aimed at replacing what’s become known as “allowable growth” with something else. Maybe tied to inflation and student achievement. Perhaps with a larger state role.

“We haven’t put (a proposal) together yet. My staff is working on it,” Branstad said.

So what’s allowable growth? Basically, Iowa lawmakers are supposed to vote annually on how much they’ll allow school district budgets to grow, mainly by determining how much funding the state will provide, per-pupil. Iowa law says they’re supposed to give districts an 18-month heads-up, but lawmakers ignored that last year. So 348 school districts still don’t know what their budgets will look like for the 2013-14 school year.

In the current fiscal year, the state provides more than $2.6 billion in school aid, while local property taxpayers add about $1.3 billion more.

So, as tinkering goes, this is huge, with far-reaching implications aplenty. And although education issues such as teacher pay and school calendars got their very own blue ribbon task forces and lengthy studies, this massive undertaking remains a mystery.

Hoping for a little clarity, I called Dave Roederer, director of the Department of Management. He’s among the folks working on the governor’s proposal, which, he insists, really isn’t a proposal, yet.

When will it be? It depends.

It depends, he said, on the governor’s plans for property tax reform and education reform. Right now, he said, staff in the departments of management, revenue and education are running “various scenarios” that might lead to a new funding scheme, with big changes, or maybe small ones, unveiled by the governor in January, or possibly later. Or maybe never?

“Possibly, I wouldn’t say its guaranteed.” Roederer said. “We’re in the production stage.”

I guess we’re left to sift through the few clues we have.

We know the governor hates property taxes, and, certainly, he’s not alone. So it’s likely his plan would cut the role of property taxes in school funding, replacing those dollars, presumably, with more state money. And because the governor is not much of a spender, more state money may not be much more.

Less property tax could also mean a more centralized, state-controlled funding system. With all the state mandates that already exist, that would be something. Most of the education reforms Branstad has floated so far have a centralized flavor. And Branstad’s mistrust of local governments, whether they be counties, cities or schools, is well known.

This is all speculation. It’s possible that the governor’s ultimate proposal will be surprising and innovative. It might include some really good ideas, like one being pushed by Cedar Rapids officials to provide a new state funding stream to schools with large at-risk student populations.

There clearly are ways to improve the funding structure, and if Branstad opens a debate that leads to thoughtful reforms that are good for education, good for him.

But I’ll be less excited about the possibility of a plan providing inadequate funding through a more centralized structure bearing new, rigid mandates cooked up by bureaucrats in Des Moines.

For those of us who think real education transformation will be sparked by local initiatives at adequately funded schools freed from more mandates, that wouldn’t be good news. As I’ve argued before, the Statehouse is not a place I would look to for transformative school innovations.

While we’ve waited for the state’s latest grand reform effort, schools have been curtailing programs, spending down reserves, cutting staff and closing good schools.

So far, lawmakers have been curious but cool to the idea of rushing into any big changes. Rep. Ron Jorgensen, R-Sioux City, chairman of House Education Committee, told The Gazette’s Rod Boshart that he thinks an in-depth legislative study will be needed.

Sen. Rob Hogg, D-Cedar Rapids, a member of the Senate Education Committee, contends the structure could be improved, but he fears the discussion distracts from the key issue.

“And the key issue is, if you want world class schools, are you willing to pay for them?” he said.


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