IOWA LEGISLATURE

Republicans in Iowa House, Senate, advance K-12 funding bills

The Iowa State House cupola on Thur. Mar 11, 2016. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)
The Iowa State House cupola on Thur. Mar 11, 2016. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)

DES MOINES — Legislative Republicans on Monday advanced separate funding bills they say will meet the needs of K-12 schools next fiscal year. But critics slammed the proposals as inadequate, cruel and vengeful in trying to punish the Des Moines public schools in particular for failing to immediately comply with Gov. Kim Reynolds’ push for in-person classroom instruction against the backdrop of a pandemic.

House and Senate panels approved increased funding for per-pupil supplemental state aid for Iowa public school districts for fiscal 2022 — 2.2 percent in the Senate approach and 2.5 percent in the House version for base spending along with separate boosts to cover higher transportation costs, funding inequities and a special qualified instruction supplement for public schools that held classes in-person last fall as districts wrestled with issues related to the COVID-19 outbreak.

Currently, state government spends $3.381 billion to fund 87.5 percent of K-12 public school operations with local property tax collections also contributing to Iowa’s education system. That translates to about $7,048 per pupil in state supplemental aid for the current school year.

The House GOP proposal would boost that per-pupil funding by $186 to $7,234 if approved, while calculations made by the nonpartisan Legislative Services Agency put the Senate GOP plan at $7,218, or a boost of $170 per student in fiscal 2022.

“This bill increases funding to each and every student in the state of Iowa by $170 a year. Multiply that out for an average classroom for 20 or 25 kids and it’s a significant increase for every classroom,” said Sen. Amy Sinclair, R-Allerton.

However, lobbyists and representatives for urban schools, rural schools, the Iowa Association of School Boards and the Iowa State Education Association, parents and others appeared before House and Senate subcommittees Monday to plead for increased funding — saying the state can afford to spend more with a $305 million budget surplus and more than $700 million in cash and economic emergency “rainy day” reserves.

“If this isn’t a rainy day, I’m not really sure what is — we’re living through a national pandemic,” said Jennifer Borcherding, a member of the Cedar Rapids school board, who pushed for a minimum state aid increase of 4 percent along with the one-time supplemental increases.

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Opponents called the GOP bills too prescriptive and punitive even for districts that were in compliance with the law. Also, subcommittee speakers said the GOP plans don’t make allowances for schools districts meeting the state requirement of 1,080 hours of instruction as opposed to those that meet the requirement by offering 180 days of instruction, and neither approach would make allowances for those districts that were affected by the August derecho.

Minority Democrats said GOP proposals would cause more schools with declining enrollment to be put on a budget guarantee that would fund any increases they receive via local property taxes. The Senate plan would increase the number of districts on the budget guarantee by 35, from 106 to 141, at a cost to property taxpayers of $20.4 million, while 29 more districts would require the budget guarantee under the House plan for an increased property tax cost of $16.1 million, according to LSA estimates. Democrats predicted the property tax tab would be higher.

“Instead of solving problems. This bill creates new ones,” said Sen. Sarah Trone Garriott, D-Windsor Heights.

“The money is going to come out of taxpayers’ pockets,” she added. “In a year when we have such a significant surplus in our state and a significant rainy day fund, there’s really no reason that we should be making the taxpayers pay the difference.”

Several speakers slammed a GOP proposal earmarking nearly $30 million in qualified instruction supplement for public schools that held in-person classes last fall as districts wrestled with issues related to the COVID-19 pandemic, saying the provision was intended as a political shot at the Des Moines school district for defying a state compliance order but catches innocent children in the partisan crossfire.

“Are you willing to punish my kids?” said Crystal Loving, a Des Moines parent, who held up a photo of her two children to Senate Education subcommittee members.

“The current bill is cruel and targeted and I can’t fathom why anyone would propose to do this,” she noted. “Do the right thing. Find revenge on adult decision-makers another way.”

Likewise, Shelley Skuster, a Windsor Heights parent, showed subcommittee members a photo of her four children, telling the panel, “I would never teach them to manage conflict the way that this bill proposes. I understand that there are many adults who are upset with decision-makers at DMPS. There is a time and a place for disagreements and it should not come at the expense of my children and their education. It is cruel to not offer equitable funding for students at DMPS and it is childish.”

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However, Sinclair later challenged the criticism leveled against Senate Study Bill 1159, which passed the Senate Education Committee by a 10-5 party-line vote and the Senate Appropriations Committee by a 13-8 party-line margin with expectations it will see floor debate by the full Senate on Tuesday afternoon.

“This bill is not about revenge,” Sinclair noted.

“It is legitimately about meeting the needs of school districts who have had children in their classrooms, who have had to clean, who have had to provide for additional subs when teachers had to quarantine, they’ve had to change their transportation schedules so as to allow for social distancing on busses. And let’s just be honest, if you don’t have kids in classrooms, you don’t have those expenses,” she said. “It’s about the practical way to best use the resources we have before us and quite frankly it’s about holding accountable elected officials and the people that they appoint to do jobs who flagrantly violate Iowa Code — an Iowa Code that I might remind you if you were here last year that you voted for.

“Their unwillingness to educate those 31,000 children that you’ve asked me to think about — their unwillingness to educate them from August to November left it so they did not have those additional cost that those other districts did,” Sinclair added. “This isn’t about revenge, it’s about using our dollars to the wisest use that we have and about holding elected officials and the superintendent that they hired accountable for flagrant violations of the law.”

Christopher Rants, a former House speaker who now lobbies for the Des Moines district, said state Department of Education and district officials have forged a remedial agreement that will bring schools into compliance with state instructional time requirements.

“To leave the children of the Des Moines school district out for a year’s worth of supplemental funding for essentially six weeks of behavior for which the district was not in compliance we don’t think is an equitable treatment of those students and we would ask you to reconsider,” Rants told the Senate Education subcommittee.

“Iowa maintains that we will provide an equal educational opportunity to all children of the state. Those are not my words, senators, those are in Iowa Code. That is the stated policy of this state,” Rants noted. “Yet for some reason section 6 of the bill excludes those student from the Des Moines public school district. We would ask you to correct that.”

Education group representatives said they appreciated the one-time $30 million appropriation, but they recommended that distributing it through the supplemental school aid formula on a per-pupil basis would achieve the three principles of school funding — adequacy, equity and property tax relief.

Republican members of the House Education Committee passed their version with the 2.5 percent increase in state supplemental aid to K-12 schools for the next school year by a 15-6 party-line margin Monday afternoon.

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Rep. Cecil Dolecheck, R-Mount Ayr, chair of the House Education subcommittee, said legislators hoped to keep increased funding to K-12 schools in the yearly range of $80 million to $90 million but that is not reflected in the fiscal 2022 numbers because this year produced an enrollment drop of nearly 7,000 students due to parents keeping their young children home to learn online because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

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. Included was a proposed 2.5 percent increase in state aid to K-12 schools that 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 presumably those students return to in-person learning as more Iowans are vaccinated for the COVID-19 virus.

Comments: (515) 243-7220; rod.boshart@thegazette.com

James Q. Lynch contributed to this story

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