DES MOINES — Iowa’s K-12 public schools would get a 1 percent boost in state money under a fiscal 2019 plan unveiled Wednesday by House Republicans, a $32 million hike that is less than Gov. Kim Reynolds sought but more than some educators say they expected, given the state’s ongoing budget struggles.
“I think we’re making our best attempt to fund this and make this our continued priority,” said Rep. Cecil Dolecheck, R-Mount Ayr, at the start of a process aimed at meeting the requirement legislators set the school aid level within 30 days of Jan. 9, the day it received the governor’s budget recommendation.
“The House caucus is committed to stand by this,” Dolecheck added. “This instills a commitment on the part of the Iowa House and the Republican majority that K-12 funding is our major priority. It will be the first thing out of the chute as far as the funding stream goes, and we’re putting a considerable amount of money to that.”
Currently, the K-12 per-pupil cost statewide is $6,664, according to the Legislative Services Agency. A 1 percent increase in the state supplemental aid would boost that by $67 to $6,731 per pupil in fiscal 2019.
Sen. Amy Sinclair, R-Allerton, chair of the Senate Education Committee, said Senate Republicans have not yet finalized state aid, but she expected they would have a number by Thursday.
Representatives of several education groups said they appreciate that K-12 funding has been “held harmless” the past two years when legislators had to trim funding commitments in other areas to keep the state budget balanced. They said Wednesday’s 1 percent increase from House Republicans was a pleasant surprise.
“While we continue to have concerns about funding for schools, 1 percent is certainly far above what we thought we would see going into this legislative session,” said Emily Piper of the Iowa Association of School Boards. “We appreciate the effort that you have put forward to find that funding.”
However, she added “no doubt it will still cause stress for many of our districts in terms of putting their budgets together.”
Sharon Steckman, D-Mason City, ranking education committee member, said 1 percent growth was inadequate, given state officials have projected revenue will grow by 4 percent during the 2019 fiscal year while elementary and secondary schools go underfunded.
“I don’t see this as a priority. I think if it was a priority, it would show in our budget, and it’s not showing,” Steckman said, noting state aid to schools has been on a steady decline compared to expenses, while state-funded tax credits “and giveaways are going straight up.”
“I appreciate you trying to get to 1 percent, I really do, but don’t tell me it’s a priority because it’s not,” she added.
Brad Hudson of the Iowa State Education Association noted that a large number of K-12 school districts would be funded via a budget guarantee that supplements declining enrollments with money from local property taxes.
“I don’t think that’s saying that our kids or our public schools are our priority,” he said.
“We are cutting to the bone in a lot of districts,” added ISEA lobbyist Melissa Peterson.
Dolecheck said House Republicans tried but could not get to the governor’s recommendation of 1.5 percent in state supplemental aid and funding flexibility totaling $52 million.
He held out hope that up to $10 million in state money to assist in equalizing costs in transportation and other efforts to extend the school infrastructure sales tax could reach fruition this session. But it’s too early to tell, he said.
Sen. Joe Bolkcom, D-Iowa City, ranking member on the Senate Appropriations Committee, said majority Republicans appeared to be on a path to continue eight consecutive years “of the lowest K-12 funding that we’ve seen over the 40-plus years of the school aid formula.”
He said 1 percent growth likely meanslarger class sizes, delays in new textbook and technology purchases and possible layoffs.
“It’s going to be inadequate for what we hear from superintendents and teachers and parents about their needs for our schools,” Bolkcom said. “The clamps are going to get screwed down even tighter on local districts. Those districts that are struggling to stay afloat are probably going to be looking at whether they’re going to be in business or not or looking at layoffs or more consolidation.”