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Case study: Davenport's legal challenge against 'inequity in funding'

"Iowa Courts do not currently recognize the right to education as a fundamental right"

    The Iowa State House cupola on Thur. Mar 11, 2016. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)
    K-12 Education
    Sep 10, 2017 at 3:31 pm

    While students in neighboring districts of Bettendorf and Pleasant Valley were allowed to spend $6,665 and $6,724 respectively per student last year, the Davenport Community School District could dole out only $6,591 per each of its about 4,930 students.

    In December, a group of current and former Davenport students filed a lawsuit, contending the disparity — about $860,000 per year — led the Davenport school district to have to apply “significant cuts in its operating budget, resulting in fewer educational programs, increased class sizes and diminished resources and classroom supports.”

    Davenport Community School District Superintendent Art Tate, in an email said the district has “no involvement whatsoever” with the suit, and declined to further comment.

    But Tate has dipped into the district’s reserve funds with similar motivations to the complainants — to make up the difference between Davenport’s spending authority and other districts’ in the state.

    In response, the Iowa Department of Education filed an ethics complaint against Tate to the Board of Educational Examiners, Department spokeswoman Staci Hupp said. The board has the authority to revoke educators’ licenses.

    While Tate’s licensure still is uncertain, a judge dismissed the December lawsuit June 29, and in a ruling said, in part, that while the formula “may not result in dollar-for-dollar parity between districts, students are guaranteed roughly the same amount of funds for his or her education.”

    It was also thrown out because plaintiffs asserted the formula “violates a fundamental right” to a public education.

    “Whether the right to education is a fundamental right remains an open question in Iowa,” the ruling states. “ ... Iowa Courts do not currently recognize the right to education as a fundamental right.”

    Chase Cartee of the Cartee Law Firm in Davenport, which represented the plaintiffs, said in July lawyers are considering an appeal.

    “I think this case is probably destined to go the Iowa Supreme Court at some point,” Cartee said. “It’s for them to decide if education is a fundamental right in Iowa or not.”

    The lawsuit had named the state of Iowa, the general assembly, former Gov. Terry Branstad and the Iowa Department of Education as defendants because they “had the authority to change the funding formula but declined to do so,” according to court filings.

    “I think this case is probably destined to go the Iowa Supreme Court at some point. It’s for them to decide if education is a fundamental right in Iowa or not.”

    - Chase Cartee

    Cartee Law Firm

     

    “There’s an inequality in the school funding formula in Iowa,” Davenport Schools spokeswoman Dawn Saul said in July. “ ... Davenport and many other districts, probably about half around the state, have said, ‘Hey, we too would like equal funding.’”

    For now, the problem seems stubborn. A lack of state revenue prevented a bill addressing funding inequities from advancing the last legislative session, according to reporting from the Quad City Times. The issue could be back next year.

    “I think the question of whether the school funding formula is equitable is one for the state legislature to decide,” Iowa Department of Education Staci Hupp said.

    While educators in Davenport have hope for legislative action next year, Saul said it’s no longer at the forefront of their minds.

    “We have school starting,” she said. “We need to get ready for our students to come back, and do the very best for our students. We will move forward.”

    l Comments: (319) 398-8330; molly.duffy@thegazette.com

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