When Iowa’s school funding formula was written in the 1970s, it set an amount of money the state would spend per student. In the simplest of terms, students enter their school with a metaphorical backpack of state money — when children move to a new school, their money arrives with them; when they transfer out, their money leaves, too.
The dollars in those backpacks have grown as the legislature has approved dozens of percentage increases — 1.1 percent last year — over time.
“You’d think that, no matter where you are in this wonderful state, that every student would generate the same amount of funding.
Well, they don't.”
- Kim Huckstadt
Assistant professor, University of Northern Iowa
Explore interactive data: Per pupil funding amounts for each school district
But the number of dollars allocated per pupil vary based on the school district a student attends. Children enrolled in a school in the Pleasant Valley school district (during fiscal year 2017), arrived with $6,724. Children at Des Moines schools showed up with $6,659. And scores of others arrived with the base amount decided by the legislature: $6,591.
“You’d think that, no matter where you are in this wonderful state, that every student would generate the same amount of funding,” said Kim Huckstadt, an assistant professor at the University of Northern Iowa who teaches school finance. “Well, they don’t.”
The discrepancies have persisted since the formula’s creation because school districts were funding students at different levels in the 1970s, Huckstadt said. When legislators picked a funding level in the middle to be the state’s minimum per-pupil cost, the districts spending less than that level received more money. But those spending above it continued to spend at their original, higher levels.
Before the formula’s creation, districts’ spending varied widely across the state, Iowa Department of Education spokeswoman Staci Hupp said.
“Until the mid-1960s, the school districts were funded solely through local property taxes,” she explained. “In the early ‘70s, we moved toward a school funding formula that increased state aid substantially. The change there was driven by two goals: To make sure funding was more equitable across school districts … and to protect property taxpayers.”
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Some 40 years later, some inequity persists. In 2017, a handful of school districts can spend as much as $175 more per student. Multiplied by a district’s total enrollment, that additional money quickly can become a budget boost worth thousands.
“The state pays the same amount to all districts,” Hupp said. “The difference in cost-per-student is (obtained through) local property taxes.”
The inequity though, Huckstadt said, doesn’t seem related to a district’s residents’ wealth.