Government

K-12 school funding decision could come quickly from Iowa legislature

Opinions vary whether lawmakers will take on school vouchers

The Iowa State Capitol building in Des Moines, photographed on Tuesday, June 10, 2014. (Liz Martin/The Gazette-KCRG)
The Iowa State Capitol building in Des Moines, photographed on Tuesday, June 10, 2014. (Liz Martin/The Gazette-KCRG)

Many Iowa legislators and education advocates expect funding levels for public K-12 schools to be set early this session — though with little to no increase — but disagree whether vouchers to increase school choice will seriously be considered.

State funding for public schools has seen only modest increases in recent years — 2.25 percent increases or less in seven of the last eight years — which many educators argue has stretched districts’ budgets thin.

But slower-than-expected tax receipt collections in the state makes it unlikely there will be any large increase adopted in the legislative session that begins Monday.

Still, lawmakers hope to shield schools from any cuts that are almost certain to come midyear because of projected fiscal 2018 shortfalls.

“With respect to K-12, it’s pretty hard for me to imagine how deep cuts in K-12 would support a growth environment,” Senate Majority Leader Bill Dix, R-Shell Rock, said in an interview. “Our employers count on students coming out of school prepared to go into the workplace or go on to higher education, and to underfund those efforts simply does make good sense for workforce development.”

Legislators expect to decide on state supplemental aid for schools early in the session. Last year, funding for schools — a 1.1 percent, or $40 million, increase — was approved by both chambers in February.

“I expect them to do that again. I don’t have a problem with that,” said Rep. Mary Mascher, D-Iowa City, who serves on the House Education Committee. “It will just be set really low, which is always a problem. … We’re hearing everything from a 0 to 2 percent increase. I’m anticipating more toward the zero end because of what we’re dealing with with the budget.”

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The state’s budget situation dissuaded the School Administrators of Iowa from putting a number on its desired bump. The group, which represents more than 2,000 school administrators, typically argues for budgetary increases between 2 and 4 percent, Executive Director Roark Horn said.

“We certainly understand the situation this year. Our conversations have been: ‘We trust you to do the best job you can, remember that that money is really precious to help Iowa’s children,’” Horn said. “ … They would like to do something not just for the kids, but election-wise they know it doesn’t look good if they don’t fund their public schools. But the numbers are pretty bleak.”

Last year, legislators eased restrictions on how school districts can use unspent balances in categorical funds. That could provide some relief, Mascher said, and Dix said he has heard from superintendents that the change “has opened tremendous opportunities.”

Horn said it’s too soon to know that measure’s full impact. It will impact decisions made in fiscal year 2018, which does not end until June.

PRIVATE SCHOOL VOUCHERS?

Legislators and education advocates have different opinions on whether a school voucher or “education savings account” program will gain momentum.

The programs, which exist in 14 states and Washington, D.C., typically allow parents to use state dollars allocated to public schools on a per-pupil basis to pay for tuition at non-public schools instead.

Iowa Catholic Conference Executive Director Tom Chapman said legislators have shown the idea “general support.”

“We’re hoping to have something introduced, and we’ll have to see how far we can take that in the current (budgetary) environment,” Chapman said, adding that a program could be implemented in phases, starting first at the kindergarten level. Giving the voucher the same value as per-pupil funds would make it “budget neutral,” he added.

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But Rep. Art Staed, D-Cedar Rapids, called a voucher program “the death of public education” and said that Republicans are making a “huge push” for a program this session.

Rep. Kirsten Running-Marquardt, another Democrat from Cedar Rapids, also sounded an alarm. “This is red flag, holy smoke, get organized now,” Running-Marquardt said.

But Mascher, a Democrat, said she doesn’t think there is enough support for the program.

“It’s one of those things that would take away from the general fund and take away from the public schools,” she said. “There’s not support for that, even in Republican caucus, in decimating the public school system.”

Horn, of School Administrators of Iowa, also questioned a voucher program’s feasibility this budget year.

“We would be opposed to anything like that,” he said. “We’re kind of here: If there’s not money for public education, then it’s a challenge to understand how there could be taxpayer money — even more taxpayer money — that’s directed to private education.”

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

Rod Boshart and James Q. Lynch of The Gazette contributed.

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