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Educators: Increasing school funding matter of ‘survival’
Iowa educators seek 5% rise, over twice as much as the 10-year average
Educators are asking for an increase of 5 percent in funding for Iowa public schools, saying it’s crucial to retain and recruit staff, reduce class sizes, manage increased operating costs and make up for decades of underfunding.
A 5 percent increase is “survival,” Mount Vernon Superintendent Greg Batenhorst said. The cost of operating a school district increases by about 3 to 4 percent each year, according to School Administrators of Iowa. However, over the last 10 years, state aid has increased at a rate of less than 2.1 percent on average.
Iowa lawmakers must set the growth rate for State Supplemental Aid in the first 30 days of each legislative session, which begins this year on Monday.
Cedar Rapids interim Superintendent Art Sathoff said the education budget should be a “sacred cow.” He believes increasing State Supplemental Aid by 5 percent is realistic, given the economy. “My fear would be that it comes at the expense of succeeding years,” he said.
Inflation, which has increased by about 8 percent in Iowa this year, is stretching school districts’ dollars even further, educators say, and paying teacher’s a livable wage is challenging. Declining enrollment in many districts exacerbates this problem, with the state’s per-pupil formula of about $7,400 a student. The Cedar Rapids Community School District, for example, has seen a decline of about 1,400 students in the last five years, Sathoff said.
The state provides a “reliable and sustainable” funding increases to Iowa schools, said Iowa Senate Majority Leader Jack Whitver, R-Grimes. “No aspect of the state budget has received more new funding since 2017 than K-12 education. Since 2017, K-12 funding has increased by over half a billion dollars,” he said.
Whitver said workforce shortages are not specific to education or to Iowa. “It is an issue impacting every sector of the economy,” he said. “Over the last couple years, the Legislature has passed several different loan repayment incentives, eased unnecessary licensing requirements for educators and reduced taxes for all working families so they keep more of what they earn.”
Iowa House Speaker Pat Grassley, R-New Hartford, agrees. “We’re spending more money today on K-12 (State Supplemental Aid) than we ever have in the state,” he said.
Iowa House Minority Leader Jennifer Konfrst, D-Windsor Heights, said Democrats will continue to fight to increase funding for education, which is “desperately needed.”
Republicans are defunding Iowa’s public schools, said Iowa Senate Minority Leader Zach Wahls, D-Coralville — the impact of which is bigger class sizes and making it harder for Iowa to attract and retain workers.
“We obviously need to be investing more in that next generation of teachers and having a stronger pipeline, raising teacher pay and shrinking class sizes,” he said. “Those are good for teachers and they're good for students.”
Funding full-day preschool
Another priority for Iowa school districts is the state fully funding 4-year-old preschool. Children who participate in early childhood programming like preschool have better health and better social-emotional and cognitive outcomes, according to the Iowa City Community School District’s legislative priorities.
Research also shows that students with access to 4-year-old preschool are less likely to repeat a grade, less likely to be identified as having special needs, more prepared academically for later grades and more likely to graduate from high school.
“Those not in quality preschool opportunities are going to start their K-12 school experience behind their peers,” Mount Vernon’s Batenhorst said. “The key of preschool is learning how to work and play with others. It’s not even about academic skills. Preschools help develop that foundation for learning.”
Currently, Iowa’s Statewide Voluntary Preschool Program provides funding for free, half-day preschool to 4-year-olds. Half-day programs can be a barrier for working families who are unable to find child care before or afterward, or transportation for their child.
Konfrst said Democrats will be “pushing hard” this year to fully fund 4-year-old preschool, which is a “great equalizer” and could have a positive impact on the future of the state.
Republican leaders Whitver and Grassley said fully funding 4-year-old preschool will be up to the education committee.
‘Alarming need’ for mental health services
State educators also are asking for an increase in funding for mental health services to address the “alarming need” across the state, according to the Iowa City Community School District’s legislative priorities.
One in five children in the United States has a mental, emotional or behavioral disorder, according to the American Psychological Association. Suicide is the second leading cause of death for middle and high school students.
“Our teachers didn’t go in to education to be therapists, but that’s become one of their de facto roles because of the greater social-emotional needs in the classroom,“ Batenhorst said.
Many school districts have agreements with mental health providers to provide counseling services to students, but the demand is great.
"We need to make sure we’re incentivizing providers to come to Iowa and educating more providers to provide services for kids,“ Konfrst said. ”The problem with children's mental health in this state is far from solved, and it's going to take some investment, is going to take some resources, and frankly, it's going to take some attention to get this done because kids need more than they're getting.“
Grassley agrees there’s a need for more providers. “We can put all the money in the world toward this” but there just aren’t the people to fill the jobs, he said. Incentives need to be created to attract workers to the profession and to rural Iowa, he said.
It’s equally important for school districts to be able to provide mental health services to their teachers and staff, Cedar Rapids’ Sathoff said.
"There is no job in education that has gotten less complicated or less stressful,“ he said.
Caleb McCullough of The Gazette-Lee Des Moines Bureau contributed to this report
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Legislative preview series
The Iowa Legislature begins its 2023 session on Monday. The Gazette will examine these state issues in the days leading up to the session:
Sunday: Tax policy and the state budget
Monday: Abortion policy
Tuesday: Health and Human Services merger
Today: K-12 and higher education policy
Thursday: Water quality
Friday: Elections and recounts laws
Saturday: Carbon capture pipelines
Sunday: Private school tuition assistance
Monday: Demographics of the new Legislature