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For richer and for poorer: A look at school funding in two Iowa districts

How Iowa funds its most privileged students and its most disadvantaged

    Students in Alisha Sinclair's kindergarten class eat breakfast through the Breakfast in the Classroom initiative on the last day of school at Edmunds Elementary School in Des Moines, Iowa, on Tuesday, May 30 2017. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
    K-12 Education
    Sep 20, 2017 at 1:54 pm

    When her students arrived at school in the mornings with backpacks and books, they often were carrying worries and pain through Edmunds Elementary’s towering glass doors, too.

    Jaynette Rittman, the school’s principal, saw those heavy concerns materialize as behavioral outbursts — tantrums, refusals to work and classroom destruction — added up to nearly 1,000 office referrals during Rittman’s first year at the school.

    That was four years ago. Now students who attend the school in the heart of Des Moines file into a place that equips them with breathing techniques, derived from yoga practice, in the hopes those tools will help students calm themselves. Referrals to the principal’s office have been cut in half.

     
     

    But many still come to school with issues that would weigh on grown adults, Rittman said during an interview in May. Two siblings, in the second- and fifth- grades, were grappling with the killing of their 14-year-old brother. Other children were waiting for their mother to return to Iowa from an open-ended trip to Africa. Others arrive hungry or cold or tired.

    “We talk a lot about, if you had a pop bottle or a lid, our lids — yours and mine — might be almost closed,” Rittman said. “Where some of our students’ lids are already halfway open. Then one thing sets them off — and their lids pop.”

    Nearly all Edmunds Elementary students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, an indicator of poverty. With almost 98 percent of students eligible, the school of 350 students has the highest rate in Iowa.

    PROVIDING MORE ‘TO CREATE EQUITY’: Edmunds Elementary in Des Moines

     

    Federal funds help feed those students, and additional funding from the state funnels to students who are identified as “at risk” — which Edmunds, part of the Des Moines Independent Community School District, uses to pay for additional counseling services and staff who work directly with at-risk students. In all, at-risk supplemental funds from the state total $1.5 million, and a dropout prevention levy plus a match from the state add an additional $14.1 million.

    State guidelines say students who receive weighted at-risk funding include those who shoulder “early adult responsibilities:” taking care of siblings, working to help support a family, coming from families in poverty, showing signs of disengaging with school; or living in communities with high levels of violence or drug-related crime.

    Additional federal money also is used at Edmunds. In the Des Moines district, those dollars are doled out to schools that qualify under Title I of the No Child Left Behind Act at a rate of $742 per student, the district’s business and finance controller Nick Lenhardt said. The district received $12.3 million overall in fiscal year 2016.

    “We just try to — we just love them. We give them all the love and support that they can have."

    - Jaynette Rittman

    Principal, Edmunds Elementary

     
     

    A spokeswoman for the Iowa Department of Education said those funds should not decrease after the Every Student Succeeds Act replaces No Child Left Behind in the fall.

    “What the federal government has said is those schools need ‘more of,’” Lenhardt said. “This is our way of providing ‘more of.’ To create equity throughout, they’ve said we’re going to give more.”

    So teachers at Edmunds often walk students’ home at the end of the day — most of whom live in one of two large apartment complexes within a few blocks — to share with families their child’s successes or troubles at school. Staff and students take pride in their building — as Rittman walked the school’s halls on a Thursday in May, she stopped to pick up stray pieces of loose-leaf paper, and when the school was remodeled recently, students raved almost exclusively about the new lockers. For many, they were the first spaces that were all their own.

    “We just try to — we just love them,” Rittman said of how Edmunds helps its students, many of whom are refugees or first-generation Americans, grappling with issues at home. “We give them all the love and support that they can have. Academically, it’s always a challenge. You’ve got to meet their social-emotional needs and their foundational needs before you can tap into their academic needs. So that’s what we try to do.”

    Educating low-income students can be costly. Funding sources such as at-risk dollars and Title I money help pay for additional services needed by some, but they are only percentages of a district’s budget. As is the case in most states, Iowa’s school funding formula assigns the vast majority of dollars to school districts on a per-pupil basis — last fiscal year, the rate was $6,591.

    But the Des Moines district received more, about $6,659 per student. With a district population of more than 31,000, that extra $68 translated to more than a $2 million addition to the budget.

    INEQUITABLE PER-PUPIL FUNDS

    And while that money helped educate all Des Moines students, including those with economic disadvantages at Edmunds, the reason behind the additional funds, a school finance expert at the University of Northern Iowa said, has little to do with a district’s financial need. There are not clear relationships between a district’s per-pupil funding level and its socioeconomic status, racial demographics or location.

    “It goes way back to the 1970s when this formula was first put in place,” said Kim Huckstadt, an assistant professor and former superintendent of 13 years. “This inequity has existed for 40 years.”

    When the legislature created a minimum funding level per-student in the 1970s, lawmakers picked an amount near the midpoint of districts’ already established funding levels. Districts that were funding students below that point started receiving more funds so they could increase their spending on students, which helped equalize funding levels across the state.

    Most years, state legislators approve a percentage increase for school funding. Most recently, it was a 1.1 percent bump, which gave an additional $72.50 per student to districts’ budgets. The increase is stacked on top of schools’ existing spending levels.

    At most, some districts’ students are allowed to spend $175 more dollars per student than others. And those additional dollars, when multiplied by a district’s entire student population, quickly can add thousands of dollars to the budget.

    In the Des Moines suburb of Ankeny, for example, where less than 12 percent of students qualify for free or reduced lunches, the school district can spend the minimum amount of $6,591. The Waukee, Pekin and Gilbert school districts, too, which have some of the lowest student poverty rates in the state, are set at the $6,591 level.

    “This inequity is built in so that not every child in every school district is generating the same funds,” Huckstadt said.

    The discrepancy prompted current and former students of the Davenport Community School District to file a lawsuit in December, dismissed in June, which argued the funding formula unconstitutionally disadvantaged some students over others.

    The Davenport district’s spending level was set at the minimum amount, while its neighboring districts of Bettendorf received an extra $74 per pupil last year and Pleasant Valley Community School District received an extra $133.

    ‘GROWING UP AND NOT HAVING TO WORRY': Hopewell Elementary in Bettendorf

     

    That generated almost $92,500 additional dollars for Pleasant Valley, which includes Hopewell Elementary. That school, established in 2011, is nestled in a new development of large, two-story homes. With less than three percent of its student population eligible for free or reduced lunch, the elementary school has the lowest rate in Iowa.

    On one of the last days of school in May, a table outside Hopewell’s main office was piled high with slick North Face and Under Armour coats and jackets, ones students had left behind or forgotten over the year. When asked about office referrals, the school’s principal, Chris Welch, pointed to student-created referrals — slips students write themselves to draw attention to positive behavior from their classmates or teachers.

    “They definitely instill respect — that’s a big thing,” district spokeswoman Beth Marsoun said of the slips and the school’s culture in general.

     
     

    On one rainy Friday, students and some family members attended a midmorning flag ceremony. The children, sitting cross-legged on the gym floor, were near silent as veterans told stories after their experiences in the Army, Navy and Marines.

    “Not just respect, but citizenship and kindness,” Marsoun said. “And it sticks.”

    Although the school doesn’t have a behavioral model as structured as Edmunds Elementary in Des Moines — where walking the hall is tightly regulated and students have designated areas to retreat when they feel out of control — Welch said: “Everyone brings emotional luggage with them, and we’re no different in that sense.”

    Pleasant Valley’s at-risk funding amounted to an additional $80,750. A levy and state match brought in an additional $988,173, which staff accountant Lorrie Long said the district uses to pay for guidance services, an alternative high school, remedial programming and academic support.

    Here, students’ brushes with poverty often exist only in books or class assignments. For a project that involved teaching younger students about topic of her choice, Gretchen Highberger, a 12-year-old Hopewell student, chose books about refugees and children in the foster care system. She said she hoped the readings would show students the experiences of children who might not have that “perfect, typical home that people around here take for granted.”

    “I feel like growing up and not having to worry about having food or water and stuff like that, not having to worry about where I’m going to go — I’m really grateful for that,” Gretchen said. “And I wanted to help other kids get that.”

    While the home lives of students such as those who attend Edmunds Elementary may seem far away for students at Hopewell, the children at both schools grin sheepishly when the principal greets them in the hallway of their newly built schools. They bury their heads into their books during classes. During school assemblies, they are eager to catch a glimpse of a smiling parent sitting in the crowd.

    On a Thursday evening late last school year, parents, siblings and grandparents of Edmunds students talked excitedly in the school’s gym as students readied themselves for a performance at the school’s Culture Fair. Many women wore long, brightly-colored dresses, while toddlers crawled across relatives’ laps.

     

    The room never quieted as students chatted and walked on stage to perform a Japanese weather song with homemade rain sticks. Parents cooed. A young girl excitedly pointed out her sister on stage, referring to her headscarf: “She’s the one in the red, next to the blue.”

    At Hopewell during a morning flag ceremony, mothers in Hunter rainboots and Lululemon leggings filed into the gym from the rain, squeezing into bleachers while students sat cross-legged on the gym floor. They fell nearly silent as the assembly began.

    They watched as a student choir stood and their teacher blew a pitch pipe. The children hummed and found their pitch before beginning “America the Beautiful.”

    The Edmunds students grinned and shouted Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land.”

    The discrepancy between the two schools’ per-pupil funding levels — and many other Iowa schools — will persist unless legislators take action, UNI’s Huckstadt said. Funding levels inch closer to together year by year, as state aid increases by a percentage of the base amount.

    But total equity won’t happen naturally in his lifetime, he said, or before any of Iowa’s current students grow up.

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

    This story appears in the fourth edition of the Iowa Ideas magazine. Order a free copy here.

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