CEDAR RAPIDS — Although increases in state aid to K-12 schools has been small, Iowa is bucking the trend of declining public investment in elementary and secondary schools.
State aid to public schools, which is seen as crucial for communities to thrive and the economy to offer broad opportunity, has declined dramatically in a majority of states over the past decade, according to a report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. In Arizona, for example, state funding dropped almost 37 percent.
In Iowa, however, researchers found total state funding per student, adjusted for inflation, increased 20.6 percent from 2008 to 2015. Only North Dakota, Illinois and Alaska had greater increases according to the researchers’ analysis of data from the Census Bureau Public Elementary-Secondary Education 2015 data and National Center for Education Statistics.
However, in the states providing less total school funding per student than in 2008, those cuts have “real and damaging consequences for local school districts because local schools are generally unable to make up for deep cuts in state funds,” said Michael Leachman, director of state fiscal research at the center.
Most states cut school funding after the recession hit and in many states funding has not been restored. In 2015, the latest year for which comprehensive spending data is available from the U.S. Census Bureau, 29 states were providing less total school funding per student than they were in 2008, according to the center.
That’s a concern because the nation’s “future depends heavily on the quality of its schools,” according to the authors of the report titled “A Punishing Decade for School Funding.”
“Increasing financial support can help K-12 schools implement proven reforms such as hiring and retaining excellent teachers, reducing class sizes, and expanding the availability of high-quality early education,” they wrote.
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Even in Iowa, where Leachman found funding increases, local schools have not been immune from larger class sizes and staff reductions reported in most states. There are 1.4 million more K-12 students across the country this year than in 2008, but 135,000 fewer teachers and other school staff.
“So it’s problematic that some states have headed sharply in the opposite direction over the last decade,” he said. “These cuts risk undermining schools’ capacity to develop the intelligence and creativity of the next generation of workers and entrepreneurs.”
In most states, school funding has gradually improved since 2015, but some states that cut very deeply after the recession hit still are providing much less support. As of the current school year, at least 12 states have cut “general” or “formula” funding — the primary form of state support for elementary and secondary schools — by 7 percent or more per student over the last decade, according to a survey the center conducted using state budget documents.
This year, the Iowa Legislature approved a 1.1-percent increase, about $40 million. That translates into a per-pupil average of $6,664, an increase of $73.
That increased total state general fund dollars for K-12 education to nearly $3.2 billion, a 3.5 percent increase over the current year, according to the Legislative Services Agency.
When state and local spending is combined, Iowa showed a 4.9-percent increase, 13th highest among the 21 states that posted positive numbers. In Iowa, local property taxes generated through the school aid formula are estimated to be $1.477 billion, an increase of $55.4 million over fiscal 2017.
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