Guest Columnist

Lawmakers, tackle Iowa's big problems

Old Iowa Postcard from 1930s. Front Image.
Old Iowa Postcard from 1930s. Front Image.

Another legislative session promises to ignore chronic problems. We have too many counties, school districts, and stinky Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations, or CAFOs. A college education is so expensive it mortgages the future of those who seek it. Noses are abused.

There are solutions.

Reorganize into 33 counties of equal size. Require contiguous cities of over 5,000 population in each new county to merge.

Reorganize into 33 school districts of equal head count enrollment, and adjust boundaries after each decennial census. Fold Area Education Agencies, AEAs, into the new districts.

Require existing CAFOs to eliminate stink. The technology exists. Give them time and tax credits to finance it. Require new CAFOs to meet the new standards.

Finance students instead of institutions of higher education.

Radical? Not at all.

Lawmakers have known for decades that Iowa has too many counties and school districts; that technology for stink-free CAFOs exists; and that two Regents’ institutions so favor research that they’ve abandoned students to each other.

Why require cities, counties and schools to merge? Iowa needs increased efficiency in political subdivisions to sustain state tax cuts; otherwise, property taxes will go up. We need to prevent Detroit situations, where a central city’s core deteriorates because of lack of tax base caused by sprawling adjacent suburbs. Accretion is not unprecedented; it’s how Des Moines was created.

Why require CAFOs to be stink free? To maintain high quality of life through good stewardship and to be responsible to neighbors.

That’s what “Iowa nice” means.

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Why reform higher education support? To promote student choice and a level playing field across institutions. Iowa has a different finance mechanism for each higher education sector: line item appropriation, vouchers and formula; this favors large institutions and forces students into lower-tuition institutions that rely on teaching assistants.

Supporting students instead of institutions promotes student choice, increases enrollments at small colleges, and energizes the economy of towns where a college may be the only employer. It would even improve quality of education, by giving undergraduates a real professor.

How would a formula work?

Create a single cost center for the first two years of college at all institutions, and apply it to scholarships. Create another for the second two years of college with four sub-cost centers: Humanities, Social Sciences, Biological Sciences, and Physical Sciences, since the latter two are more expensive.

Create a cost center for graduate education, but limit scholarships to Iowa’s labor requirements.

Adjust support by median costs biennially. Finance by folding all existing institutional appropriations, including capital expenditures, into the new formula.

Iowa’s leaders have avoided our big problems, and no one is mentioning them now. Lack of courage? For sure, but something else: “Without vision, the people perish.” Where’s their vision?

James Sutton of Des Moines is a retired education lobbyist.

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