Staff Editorial

Legislature fields little debate about improving Iowa schools

A classroom at Truman Elementary School in Cedar Rapids on Thursday, Dec. 12, 2019. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
A classroom at Truman Elementary School in Cedar Rapids on Thursday, Dec. 12, 2019. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)

Republicans who control the Iowa House and Senate agreed this month to a 2.3 percent increase in funding for K-12 schools, or about $85.5 million in new dollars next school year.

Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds proposed an increase of 2.5 percent, or just over $100 million, a number supported by House Republicans. But the Senate GOP wanted 2.1 percent, so the chambers compromised after weeks of haggling.

Democrats and school districts wanted a larger increase, as much as 3.5 percent. They lamented the smaller increase, arguing that a series of state funding boosts in recent years below or barely at pace with inflation have left the state’s public schools with tight budgets. More cuts in staff and programs are inevitable.

Much of the legislative debate centered on these numbers. Republicans contend the approved increase is adequate, given that overall K-12 funding tops $3.4 billion. Democrats contend that Republicans who rarely question business interests’ need for more tax cuts refuse to believe school leaders who make the case for more funding.

But largely gone from the debate is any discussion of how to make Iowa’s schools better, how to transform institutions to meet the educational needs of students now and in the future. How does a 2.3 percent or 3.5 percent increase in funding aid that transformation? There’s precious little discussion of the future in our annual Statehouse battle over percentages.

It wasn’t all that long ago that education transformation was a hot topic. Former Gov. Terry Branstad took office in 2011 and convened a summit of national education leaders with the aim of giving Iowa students “a world-class education.” Among the results was a $150 million effort to improve teacher pay and performance while encouraging collaboration and mentoring.

When the GOP took over the Legislature in 2017, the push to “professionalize teaching” ran into a Republican push to gut collective bargaining rights for teachers and other public employees. There’s been more talk about school choice and less discussion of improving traditional public schools, although no choice proposals have passed. Democrats, as is typical of a minority party, are focused mainly on criticizing GOP plans and grabbing Republican seats in the next election.

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But the challenges faced by schools and students have not gone away. Neither has the need for change and innovation. How does 2.3 percent or 3.5 percent move us forward educationally? Will these funding plans actually address the lengthening list of challenges faced by our schools? Do they help close achievement gaps?

The answer to the question of whether Iowa truly values public education and wants students to succeed isn’t “$3.4 billion.” That number tells us nothing about schools’ capacity to put in place innovative approaches, new programs and creative curriculum. Are we buying a world class education, or are we striving simply for annually adequate.

That’s where the focus should be, not on a battle over percentages.

(319) 398-8262; editorial@thegazette.com

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