Seventh installment in a series of articles about issues likely to come up for debate in the 2020 Iowa Legislature.
In past legislative sessions, many public school advocates asked for “timely and adequate aid” from lawmakers for the state’s schools.
But the strategy hasn’t paid off, Iowa City Community School District board Vice President Shawn Eyestone said.
Costs of operating that district, on average, increase 4.4 percent annually. The Republican-controlled Iowa Legislature last session increased funding for K-12 education in Iowa by 2.1 percent — an increase of almost $80 million, to a total of $3.3 billion for schools — and by 1.1 percent and 1 percent in the years before.
“We’ve been conditioned to expect a really small number,” Eyestone said. “We need 4.5 percent, so we’re going to ask for it. We might not get it, but we don’t need to be happy about that.”
As legislators return to Des Moines for a session that starts Monday, many other education advocates including members of the Iowa City school board are being more specific about the funding levels they say are required to adequately educate the more than 490,000 students in Iowa’s public schools.
Gov. Kim Reynolds, in an interview with The Gazette, declined to say how much funding she will recommend for public schools when she gives her Condition of the State address Tuesday. But she said education remains a top priority of her administration.
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“Even in really tough budget years, we didn’t cut when we asked everybody else to play a role in helping us with reductions,” she said.
Last session, in addition to the increase to State Supplemental Aid, some schools received more funds to balance transportation costs and per-pupil funding inequities among districts.
In sum, those equaled $96 million for schools, Reynolds said.
“You add in some of those other components on top of that (School Supplemental Aid), and we were putting a lot of money into education and into our young people — that we should,” she said. “They’re our greatest asset, that’s our future.”
She said she expects to discuss more funding for transportation and per-pupil inequities this year, but that State Supplemental Aid remains “the main building block” for Iowa school budgets.
To the School Administrators of Iowa — which represents 2,000 administrators across the state — that pool of funding needs to be increased this session by 3.75 percent. The organization has, for years, not asked for a specific percentage increase “in recognition of the challenges of the state budget,” said Executive Director Roark Horn.
However, he said, funding from the state has not kept up with schools’ needs since fiscal 2016, when aid was increased by 1.25 percent.
Like Iowa City schools, the Cedar Rapids Community School District has seen expenses increase by 2.5 percent over the past decade while the district said its state aid has decreased by 2 percent as its enrollment has declined.
“We need to communicate with legislators that more funding is needed if education is going to continue to be a top priority in this state,” Horn said. “The 3.75 percent increase request lets lawmakers know what school leaders need to meet costs and attract and retain quality educators.”
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Although funding levels have yet to be set, the speaker of the Iowa House said he expects to start debate on school aid, per-pupil equity funding and transportation equity dollars early in the session.
“I think you’re going to see those three things in conjunction being debated fairly quickly in succession, to provide certainty to our school districts,” Rep. Pat Grassley, R-New Hartford, told The Gazette. “ ... The only commitment, as I sit here today, is that we’re going to do everything we can to get this done as fast as we can — and, obviously, look for what the recommendations will be from the governor and work from there.”
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Gazette reporters James Q. Lynch and Rod Boshart of The Gazette Des Moines Bureau contributed to this report.