Education

Data tells different stories on Iowa public school education funding

Both sides can find supporting statistics in annual argument

Cedar Rapids Community School District buses are seen in August 2014. (The Gazette)
Cedar Rapids Community School District buses are seen in August 2014. (The Gazette)

DES MOINES — On its way to Gov. Reynolds’ desk is a proposal to increase state funding in Iowa’s K-12 public school districts by 2.3 percent over the previous year.

The proposal is the culmination of this year’s debate among Iowa lawmakers over how much state funding should be invested in K-12 public education. It is an annual and often contentious debate in the Iowa Legislature, generally with Democrats arguing for more and Republicans arguing for fiscal restraint.

Many claims have been tossed around over the years during that annual debate.

The history

The most recent public education funding debate among lawmakers in Iowa intensified in 2011. Before the 2010 elections, Democrats had control of the state lawmaking process, with a Democratic governor and majorities in the House and Senate.

But the 2010 elections flipped the governor’s office and House majority, giving the state divided party control at the time.

That meant Democrats and Republicans had to come to an agreement on the state’s budget, including public school funding levels.

And that state budget was reeling from a national economic recession. State lawmakers enacted across-the-board spending cuts to balance the budget.

Those forced budget cuts motivated Republicans to rein in state government spending, including in public school funding. Instantly, what had been a recent tradition of annual 3 to 4 percent increases was trimmed significantly.

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The state’s public school funding formula was created in 1973. Starting there, public school funding increased by less than 3 percent only six times over the first 38 years, according to data compiled by the state’s nonpartisan data and legal analysis division.

Since 2011, when Republicans gained at least partial control at the Iowa Capitol, that annual school funding increase has been less than 3 percent in nine of 10 years.

Assuming Reynolds does not veto this year’s proposal and demand significantly more funding — which is unlikely, given she proposed only a slightly larger 2.5 percent increase — that streak will increase to an increase of less than 3 percent in 10 out of the past 11 years.

That shift is what has fueled the annual debate in the Iowa Legislature.

“We could easily afford to do better by our kids,” Sen. Herman Quirmbach, D-Ames, said last week during debate on the 2020-21 school funding proposal. “This bill is quite literally too little, too late.”

GOP priority

Statehouse Republicans insist public education remains one of their top priorities. They point to overall K-12 spending, which will be roughly $3.4 billion in fiscal 2021.

“This is $100 million (in increased funding), folks. Let’s forget the percentages,” Sen. Michael Breitbach, R-Strawberry Point, and chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, said during debate. “To me, that’s a pretty good shot in the arm.”

Democrats argue Republicans have made school funding less of a priority. But the data on that charge is mixed.

Starting with the 2011-12 school year, school funding as a percentage of the overall state budget decreased or plateaued, from 45.8 percent to 40.7 percent, according to state data.

That means with Republicans holding at least a share of the state budget-writing process, K-12 funding’s slice of the overall budget pie became smaller.

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But over the next two school years, that share has rebounded to 43.8 percent in the 2017-18 school year, the most recent for which the data is available. That’s slightly higher than an 18-year average from the 2000-01 to 2017-18 school years, during which there has been all manners of partisan control of state government: full Democratic control, full Republican control and split control.

Democrats’ warnings

During the annual public education debates, Democrats regularly warn of the potential consequences of Republican-set state funding levels. They warn that school districts will experience budget crunches and be forced to lay off teachers, and that the average number of students in each classroom will increase.

So far, despite 10 years of at least partial Republican control at the Iowa Capitol, those warnings have not materialized on a statewide basis.

From the 2000-01 to 2018-19 school years, the number of public school teachers in Iowa has increased.

And teacher growth has happened despite a slight regression in the number of students. Over that time, the number of teachers has increased 11 percent while the number of students has decreased by a little more than 1 percent.

Class sizes on average are not getting bigger, either. Average class sizes in kindergarten through third grades are smaller than they were in 2011.

Outliers remain, which Democrats often note during debate.

Education department data shows the largest class sizes during the 2018-19 school year included kindergarten and second-grade classes with 30 students and a third-grade class with 32 students.

Last year, the Iowa City Community School District cut millions from its budget, primarily by reducing staff at its schools. With this slightly larger increase, the district expects to bring back some of the positions.

The Cedar Rapids Community School District last made significant budget cuts in 2016, when it ended its elementary school Spanish program and eliminated 23 teaching positions.

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