Schools need more flexibility, not strings, from Statehouse

Students write down a mnemonic device for remembering how to divide fractions on whiteboard desks in their sixth grade math class at Diagonal School in Diagonal on Friday, Jan. 13, 2017. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette).
Students write down a mnemonic device for remembering how to divide fractions on whiteboard desks in their sixth grade math class at Diagonal School in Diagonal on Friday, Jan. 13, 2017. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette).

Republicans who control the Iowa House and Senate are providing a 1 percent increase in state funding for K-12 public schools. By historic standards, it’s a barely rates a passing grade. Amid the state’s current budget mess, it’s what passes for a “priority,” according to GOP leaders.

But the actual grade lawmakers deserve on school funding is an incomplete.

And that’s because the Legislature has yet to address the fate of a state sales tax for school buildings and technology. It’s the one-cent Secure and Advanced Vision for Education, or SAVE, tax. Approved by lawmakers in 2008, the tax is set to expire in 2029.

It seems like legislators have plenty of time to act. But because school districts use tax proceeds to offset long-term infrastructure bonding, the window allowing schools to use SAVE revenue is closing fast. It’s high time for lawmakers to step up and extend the tax.

House Republicans have proposed an extension, with strings. School districts with above-average property tax rates may be required to buy down those rates using SAVE dollars. There’s talk of banning schools from spending SAVE bucks on athletic facilities, among other restrictions. House members would pair an extension with a new statewide pool of transportation funds.

Although we understand misgivings about sinking sales tax dollars into pricey stadiums, we hate to see yet another prescriptive, top-down and red-tape-laden education bill descend from the Statehouse. We’d much rather see the Legislature loosen restrictions on all sorts of education dollars, giving local school boards and superintendents more flexibility to meet local priorities and needs. State strings often are cited in local schools as impediments to innovation.

There’s been talk in recent years about extending SAVE while providing districts with new, broad authority to spend sales tax dollars on needs beyond buildings and technology. Transportation costs burdening large, rural school districts is a good example. Small-government Republicans should be especially receptive to the notion of cutting big government strings.

We’ve advocated for that approach before and continue to believe an extended, flexible SAVE tax would help school districts struggling with paltry state school aid increases. Lawmakers must address the SAVE extension and the need for funding flexibility, or receive the appropriate grade for failure.

• Comments: (319) 398-8262; editorial@thegazette.com

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