Staff Columnist

Iowa politicians have only one idea for improving schools

Fight over funding is poor substitute for a real education policy debate

Cedar Rapids Jefferson High School students during a meeting with Cedar Rapids Community School District administrators at the Educational Leadership and Support Center in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, on Tuesday, Feb. 9, 2016. The students from the district will travel to Des Moines to meet with state lawmakers and lobby for school funding. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
Cedar Rapids Jefferson High School students during a meeting with Cedar Rapids Community School District administrators at the Educational Leadership and Support Center in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, on Tuesday, Feb. 9, 2016. The students from the district will travel to Des Moines to meet with state lawmakers and lobby for school funding. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

As Iowans head to the polls this week, it’s a safe bet all the legislative candidates on your ballot list education as a top priority. So do the leading gubernatorial candidates.

Yes, support for quality schools is a bipartisan staple for campaign literature and commercials. But the debate over education in Iowa really comes down to one thing alone — money. Republicans and Democrats bicker over how much to increase K-12 school funding, and little serious consideration is given to how that money is spent.

The Gazette met with more than 20 legislative candidates during our endorsement process this year. All said they would adequately fund schools, with varying levels of specificity. Most Democrats and school administrators say the state should strive to increase funding 4 percent annually, while some Republicans are OK with 2 or 3 percent. It’s a poor substitute for a robust public policy debate.

A few candidates on Eastern Iowa ballots said they might tinker with funding formulas, easing or tightening the restrictions on how districts use their various revenue sources. Some told us they would restore greater collective bargaining rights for teachers. But still, there were no grand visions or innovative proposals to bolster student learning.

Same deal in the governor’s race. Predictably, Democratic challenger Fred Hubbell wants state education spending to increase faster, while Gov. Kim Reynolds has defended Republicans’ record on supporting education. Beyond that, Hubbell has talked in generalities about local control and apprenticeship programs, but hasn’t provided many details. Reynolds was cautiously supportive of a failed school choice proposal this year in the Legislature, but I haven’t seen her push the issue on the campaign trail this fall.

It’s worth asking how effectively our school funding dollars are being spent. Education is by far Iowa’s largest budget priority, eating up an enormous share of our total spending. Total Department of Education appropriations in the last fiscal year, including local school aid, accounted for 48 percent of the state budget. Add in spending on our public universities and the portion of the budget for education is close to 60 percent.

Democrats say the state has chronically underfunded education, but the truth is more complicated. While schools always say they could use more money, Iowa has increased per-pupil funding in all but one of the past 20 years, outpacing spending growth in most other places. Only eight states increased school funding faster than Iowa between 2008 and 2015, according to an analysis published last year by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

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The impact of money on educational outcomes has been overstated, according to alternative state rankings released this year by a pair of researchers from the University of Texas. Analysts started with the same National Assessment of Education Progress data other rankings use, but they excluded factors that do not directly measure student learning, like government spending, graduation rates and pre-K enrollment.

While Iowa ranks No. 8 in the latest set of U.S. News public education rankings, the state dropped to a disappointing No. 31 in the alternative rankings. Iowa’s relatively moderate funding levels and top high school graduation rate bump our state up in the traditional rankings, but those metrics don’t necessarily show how much students are learning.

The available data “reveal no clear relationship between spending more on education and achieving better outcomes,” researchers Stan Liebowitz and Matthew Kelly wrote.

Of course, some other research is shows more funding is associated with better student outcomes, but it still is just one factor. If Iowans really value education — and not just education spending — we will have to start demanding more creative solutions from our politicians.

• Comments: (319) 339-3156; adam.sullivan@thegazette.com

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