During last fall’s election campaign virtually every legislative candidate, including Republicans who now control the Statehouse, ran on a platform of boosting investments in public schools.
Given that ambitious electioneering, the 1.1 percent increase in state funding for K-12 schools now being pushed by majority Republicans looks like a bait-and-switch.
We understand the state budget is tight. But legislative Republicans’ $40 million proposal is just half of what GOP Gov. Terry Branstad included in his budget. Branstad is hardly some tax-and-spend liberal.
The GOP legislative plan increases state aid by just $74 per student next school year. It fails to keep up with the growth of myriad expenses facing school districts. It even fails to keep up with the current inflation rate. Iowa City school leaders say the proposal will force them to cut their district’s budget by $1 million. Cedar Rapids faces a $1.5 million reduction.
According to Cedar Rapids Superintendent Brad Buck, over the past six years, state funding growth that failed to cover expenses has forced the district to make $20 million in cuts.
On top of that, the GOP bill also repeals a forward funding law that required the Legislature to approve school funding 18 months in advance, giving districts time to plan.
Republican lawmakers contend they can’t give schools a bigger share of a projected $200 million in tax collections available for new state spending. One reason is a fear of increased Medicaid costs. That’s unfortunate, considering the transfer of Medicaid management to private firms was supposed to save more than $100 million, according to the Branstad administration.
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Republicans insist they’re also exploring legislation that would erase inequities in school funding and provide more flexibility for districts seeking to tap reserves and other budget buckets now limited for specific uses by state law. That’s good news. Those changes could help. They’re also considering changes in collective bargaining laws, although details are fuzzy.
But Republicans should, at the very least, adopt Branstad’s proposed $80 million increase. Even that roughly 2 percent state funding boost would leave schools scrambling to balance their budgets. But it’s far better than the paltry package now making its way toward passage. And they should leave the forward funding law in place.
And what’s remarkably missing from this Capitol conversation is how any of this makes our schools better for our children. We’ve heard no argument as to how the Republican plan will help Iowa schools prepare our kids for the rapidly changing world that awaits them. Proponents of making collective bargaining cheaper have yet to explain how smaller pay raises will improve teaching.
There’s always lots of talk at the Statehouse about educational improvement, transformation and “world class schools.” But when budgets bust, innovative programs often must be cut or shelved.
School funding must be fiscally affordable. But make no mistake, we’ll also pay a high price for squeezing our public schools and hampering their critical mission.
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