DES MOINES — Majority Republicans in the Iowa Legislature will begin negotiations next week aimed at reaching a compromise funding level for K-12 school districts in fiscal 2022.
House Republicans, who have a 59-41 majority, have proposed a 2.5 percent base increase in general fund state aid for elementary and secondary schools.
Senate Republicans, who hold a 32-18 edge in that chamber, have opened negotiations with a 2.2 percent base increase in Senate Study Bill 1159. But they are adding a $29.4 million qualified instruction supplement for public schools that held classes in-person this fall as districts wrestled with the COVID-19 pandemic.
House Speaker Pat Grassley, R-New Hartford, told reporters Thursday he expects legislators will approve a “significant investment” for K-12 schools this month.
Currently, state government spends $3.381 billion to fund 87.5 percent of K-12 public school operations, with local property taxes providing most of the rest. That translates to about $7,048 per pupil in state supplemental aid for the current school year.
The House GOP proposal, if approved, would boost that per-pupil funding by $186 to $7,234. The Senate GOP plan would boost per-pupil spending by $170 to $7,218, according to calculations by the nonpartisan Legislative Services Agency.
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The difference in base funding between the two competing GOP approaches is about $11 million, but the Senate’s instruction supplement and other elements of the two plans create problems in finalizing the funding.
Another factor in play in K-12 funding is Iowa’s budget guarantee to districts with declining enrollment. The mechanism guarantees those districts will get at least a small increase in funding by supplementing state aid with increased property taxes in those districts.
The Senate version of K-12 funding for the new fiscal year would increase the number of Iowa school districts on the budget guarantee by 35, from 106 to 141, with an increased cost to property taxpayers in those districts of $20.4 million.
The House version would increase the number of districts on the budget guarantee by 29, at an increased cost to property taxpayers in those districts of $16.1 million.
A House Education subcommittee is slated to begin work on the supplemental school-aid bill at 11 a.m. Monday, with a Senate Education subcommittee taking up the Senate version one hour later.
Asked how difficult it will be for Republicans in the Iowa House and Iowa Senate to forge an agreement on the first major budget decision of the 2021 session, Rep. Cecil Dolecheck, R-Mount Ayr, chairman of the House subcommittee, said, “That’s a question that I have no answer to. We’ll have those discussions as we move forward with our respective proposals.”
Senate Democratic Leader Zach Wahls of Coralville said Republicans are offering a “minimal” increase for schools that won’t keep up with inflationary costs at a time when they’re dealing with myriad COVID-19 challenges.
“This is a slap in the face for students and educators and other school employees who have provided this essential service to students and families throughout the pandemic, and who, now more than ever, needs real investments in public education,” Wahls said.
Last month, Reynolds proposed an overall $8.1 billion state spending plan for fiscal 2022, a 3.7 percent increase that would fund priorities in broadband expansion, K-12 and higher education and mental health programs for adults and children.
The governor submitted a two-year budget plan to the Republican-controlled Legislature that seeks to boost general-fund appropriations by $331.4 million.
The bulk of that new spending would launch a three-year, $450 million partnership with private companies to expand accessibility to affordable broadband with “the biggest build-out in the country,” given the vulnerabilities in that network exposed by the pandemic.
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Along with a $150 million installment for broadband in fiscal 2022, Reynolds proposed a 2.5 percent increase in state aid to K-12 schools and community colleges and a $15 million increase to regent universities, $38.7 million for Medicaid and human services needs and $15 million for mental health.
In the coming fiscal year, state officials project enrollment in Iowa’s public-school districts will decline by about 6,000 students due to parents keeping their young children home to learn online — a factor that means the state budget impact of a 2.5 percent boost in state aid would translate into a $20.7 million yearly increase.
Also, the governor is seeking $20 million — as part of a $41 million supplement to this fiscal year’s budget — to help selected schools deal with pandemic-related issues.
Reynolds’ budget experts said in January they expect that state’s K-12 investment to balloon to a $140.2 million increase in state aid to schools in the following fiscal year as those students presumably return to in-person learning as more Iowans are vaccinated for COVID-19.
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