By James Q. Lynch, Gazette Des Moines Bureau
DES MOINES — The Iowa House is expected to approve a plan Monday to boost general state aid to K-12 schools by nearly $90 million — or about double the increase that lawmakers approved last year.
“This respects our commitment to education,” said House Education Committee Chairman Cecil Dolecheck, R-Mount Ayr.
That boost would increase education funding to about $3.3 billion for the 2019-20 school year, making up slightly less than half of the state general fund budget.
Dolecheck believes the increase, coupled with $7.8 million to help districts with outsized rural transportation costs and a $5-per-pupil boost in equity funding for some districts “gives us a great opportunity to do great things for education.”
Rep. Ras Smith of Waterloo, the ranking Democrat on the Education Committee, called the transportation funding a “big win because it’s continual funding. It’s categorical now. It’s not a one-time thing.”
Though they endorse the transportation funding and the $2.9 million for equity, Democrats and the Iowa State Education Association called the supplemental aid increase plan inadequate.
“Although 2.06 percent is better than the (State Supplemental Aid) rates the last couple of years, we know school districts need at least 3 percent to keep up with inflation,” said Melissa Peterson, an association lobbyist.
Bumping up the aid by 2.06 percent is “not adequate when you’ve been starved for so long to just get crumbs,” Smith said.
Democrats will offer an amendment on the floor Monday to boost up the increase to 3 percent — roughly $125 million — “because anything less than 3 percent doesn’t really make a significant advancement for our school districts,” Smith said.
Sen. Herman Quirmbach, D-Ames, who teaches economics at Iowa State University, said a 2.6 percent increase is needed to just catch up with inflation. A 3 percent increase would help schools make up for years of small steps.
The Legislature approved increases of just 1.1 percent and 1 percent in the past two years.
Smith believes Iowa has the financial means for a 3-percent increase.
“If we slowly start moving the needle in that direction, then we’re going to have more positive results,” Smith said. “It would help prepare our students to be more globally competitive.”
Dolecheck agreed that 3 percent would not be out of line, but said the package Republicans propose “balances our priorities across state government.”
Lawmakers hear from school administrators and board members that they’re happy with anything more than a 2 percent increase, said Education Committee member Rep. David Kerr, R-Morning Sun.
“We appreciate not only the effort to put together a package that provides us $100 million for K-12 education … but we really appreciate the timeliness,” Iowa Association of School Boards lobbyist Emily Piper told lawmakers. School boards must certify their budgets by mid-March.
The package would grow to $100 million if $15 million in Area Education Agencies funding is included. But that’s not certain at this time.
The Urban Education Network and the Rural School Advocates of Iowa, which represent the largest school districts and some of the smallest, respectively, agree it’s a good school funding package. Their lobbyist, Margaret Buckton, noted it exceeded the Revenue Estimating Conference’s 1.9 percent growth projection.
ISEA’s Brad Hudson agreed that the timeliness of the funding would help schools set their budgets, but 2.06 percent simply isn’t enough to offset “the inadequate funding, the lowest funding in the school aid funding in the last 10 years.”
“It will not us allow us to make inroads on improving the education quality for our children,” he said.
Republicans push back on Hudson’s claim. Aid increases have ranged from zero in the 2011-12 school year to 2 percent, plus 2 percent in one-time money, in the 2013-14 year and 4 percent the following year.
Overall, they say, the nine-year increase is 35 percent, or $765 million.
According to the annual Iowa Department of Education Condition of Education report, the number of teachers in Iowa classrooms has increased by 3,100 to 37,000, the student-to-teacher ratio has dropped every year despite enrollment growth and average teacher salaries have increased to nearly $60,000 — the 22nd in the nation.
Smith said he is not impressed.
“Iowa doesn’t set our standard on being in the middle of the pack,” he said. “We set our standard on leading. It’s going to be harder for us to attract (teaching) talent if we’re hanging our hat on being 22nd.”
House Speaker Linda Upmeyer, R-Clear Lake, was more optimistic.
“I think we have made a real effort,” she said about the Republican package. “It’s a big boon and a big investment in education.”
Republicans also are working on extending SAVE, a 1-cent sales tax for school infrastructure. The House last year approved an extension, but the Senate did not. The tax currently is set to end in 2029, which means districts that use the proceeds to back 20-year bonds are up against the deadline now. A new 20-year extension of the existing tax is forecast o provide more than $16 billion to Iowa school infrastructure projects and property tax relief.
“There are plenty of other education pieces we’re going to consider later in the session,” said House Majority Leader Chris Hagenow, R-Urbandale.
The Senate is planning to take up the funding plans later in the week.
Differences between the chambers in their bills would have to be reconciled before the governor could sign an increase.