Iowa school funding debate goes beyond numbers

Democrats say there's more to the data showing a GOP priority

(File photo) The dome of the Iowa State Capitol building from the rotunda in Des Moines on Tuesday, Jan. 10, 2017. Suspended across the dome is the emblem of the Grand Army of the Republic (G.A.R.). The emblem, painted on canvas and suspended on wire, was placed there as a

reminder of Iowa's efforts to preserve the Union during the Civil War. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)
(File photo) The dome of the Iowa State Capitol building from the rotunda in Des Moines on Tuesday, Jan. 10, 2017. Suspended across the dome is the emblem of the Grand Army of the Republic (G.A.R.). The emblem, painted on canvas and suspended on wire, was placed there as a reminder of Iowa's efforts to preserve the Union during the Civil War. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)
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DES MOINES — As it is again this year, the state’s investment in Iowa’s public K-12 schools has been a point of contention among state lawmakers for years.

Since 2011, when Republicans gained at least partial control of the state lawmaking process — they now have full control — they say they have made public education funding a priority.

Democrats see it differently. They say the GOP has woefully underfunded public schools.

The two sides also disagree over whether recent state funding has had an inverse impact on K-12 public schools.

Democrats say low funding levels have caused larger class sizes and forced districts to lay off staff, while Republicans point to state data that suggests otherwise.

Last week, GOP legislators in the House and Senate coalesced around a plan to increase state aid to K-2 schools by 1 percent for the next academic year, and to later consider measures to provide more help.

“I’m proud of the fact that when we’ve been tight in growth in these years, budget-wise ... we’ve still been able to increase (school funding) at a commensurate level to the economy,” said Walt Rogers, a Republican lawmaker from Cedar Falls who leads the House education committee. “I’m proud of it.”

Democrats and public school advocates argue the recent funding levels already are impacting Iowa’s K-12 schools.

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“Of course years of budget cuts have an impact,” said Jean Hessburg, with the Iowa State Education Association, which represents more than 34,000 teachers across the state. “Talk to any parent in any part of the state and ask any parent if the budget cuts have had an impact in their school and their community, and they will tell you what they are seeing in their schools: absolutely budget cuts are having an impact in their schools.”

Both sides use data to support their arguments. But much of that data requires additional context to fully understand it.

STILL INCREASES, BUT NOW SMALLER

Republicans insist they have made public education a priority. They note K-12 public school funding accounts for more than 40 percent of the entire state budget, and that they have approved annual funding increases despite holding some agency budgets flat and cutting others.

Since Republicans took partial control in 2011, K-12 school funding has increased each year other than the very first, resulting in nearly $713 million in new money, according to the state’s nonpartisan data agency.

Total state aid for K-12 public schools was more than $3.2 billion for the 2017-2018 school year.

“Gosh, that’s pretty good,” Rogers, the Cedar Fall Republican, said. “So I feel good about those numbers. We’ve been able to increase it, at the same time being able to keep our budget in a good place overall.”

However, those funding increases have been lower than the historical average. Since Republicans gained at least partial control at the Iowa Capitol, K-12 school funding has increased less than 3 percent in six of seven years. That had happened only seven times in the previous 39 years, according to the state data agency.

And while that funding remains a large slice of the state budget pie, that slice has been shrinking under Republican control. It went from 45.8 percent in the year before the GOP took partial control to 40.7 percent in the 2015-2016 school year, the most recent with available data, according to the state Education Department.

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“This will be the eighth straight year that we have historically underfunded schools,” said Rep. Sharon Steckman, a Democrat from Mason City who is her party’s leader on the House Education Committee.

THE CLASS SIZE DEBATE

Democrats have warned lower funding levels would lead to layoffs of teachers and other staff and result in larger class sizes, which studies show has an adverse impact on student learning.

State Education Department data suggests that has not happened.

Democrats and public school advocates, however, say that data does not paint an accurate picture of reality.

The number of full-time teachers statewide increased each of the past six years, from the 2011-2012 to 2016-2017 school years, according to Education Department data. The number of teachers increased 3 percent while enrollment over the same period increased 2.5 percent, according to the data.

And the state’s average K-12 class size has, overall, remained steady and even fallen slightly: from 20.3 students per class in the 2013-2014 school year to 19.5 in 2016-2017, according to the state data.

But Democrats and public school advocates say the average class size figure is skewed by, for example, teachers in the state’s teacher leadership program, which takes some teachers out of the classroom so they can mentor others. Those teachers are counted in the data even though they are not always in the room teaching

More than 9,500 teachers participated in the leadership program during the 2016-2017 school year, according to the Education Department.

And while the overall average class size has remained steady, some grade-specific class sizes are increasingly larger.

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For example, while the overall average class size in Iowa’s K-12 public schools is 19.5 students, the average class sizes in first and second grades are more than 20, and the average third-grade class is just shy of 22 and is increasing, the data shows.

“That particular statistic is very skewed, and is not accurate with what’s going on in the general education classroom,” Steckman said. “Those class sizes are up. You have kindergarten classes of almost 30 (students).”

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