Iowa Senate approves boost to K-12 school funding (updated)

Traditionally, Democrats and Republicans in the Iowa legislature have argued over the amount of state education funding. Now it’s a battle just to set an allowable growth level for K-12 school districts. Last year’s legislature failed to meet a deadline for approving allowable growth for fiscal year 2014, covering the 2013/2014 academic year. As a result, school districts have no idea how much they will be able to increase their budgets for the fiscal year beginning on July 1, or whether they will be able to increase their budgets at all.

Yesterday the Democratic-controlled Iowa Senate voted along party lines to set allowable growth at 4 percent for the coming fiscal year. Governor Terry Branstad and statehouse Republicans want to put off any decision on allowable growth until the legislature passes another education reform bill. After the jump I’ve posted background and more details about this issue.

For 40 years, the Iowa legislature has set an "allowable growth" level for K-12 school district budgets every year. You can view the annual percentage increases here (pdf). The first time allowable growth ever slipped below 2 percent was in 2002, when Iowa faced a state budget crunch and the GOP-controlled legislature approved a 1 percent increase.

In 2011, Governor Terry Branstad pushed for an unprecedented zero percent allowable growth for K-12 budgets. He and Republicans who had just taken back the Iowa House wanted no allowable growth for two years in a row. Iowa Senate leaders advocated 2 percent allowable growth for two years. The eventual compromise was zero growth for fiscal year 2012 (covering the 2011/2012 academic year) and 2 percent growth for the current fiscal year.

Since 1995, the legislature has approved the allowable growth level more than a year in advance. Branstad himself signed that provision into law. School board members and district administrators need time to make decisions about programs and staffing levels. During the 2012 legislative session, the Iowa House failed to stick to the schedule by approving an allowable growth for fiscal year 2014.

This week Iowa House and Senate Democrats released results from a survey of 206 Iowa superintendents. The overwhelming majority want the legislature to set a growth level quickly so that administrators don’t have to fly blind this spring, when planning their budgets for the coming academic year.

179 of the 206 respondents (87%) said that aid to local schools must be set by March 1st or earlier to avoid teacher layoffs, crowded classes, and harm to student achievement. […]

Superintendents almost unanimously (99%) believe that education dollars would be used more effectively if the state returned to setting basic aid to education a year and a half in advance.  Iowa law requires this advance budgeting but Governor Branstad and the Republican House refused to follow the law last year.

The local education leaders warned that they will soon be forced to assume there will be no increase in funding for local students in the coming school year.  That will be case for 88% of the responding districts if the state has not acted by March 1st.   The survey found that the top impacts of zero percent allowable growth will be larger class sizes (72%); delays in upgrading materials (68%), and layoffs of teachers (57%) and classroom associates (51%).  The complete results of the survey can be found at .

This page contains the full survey results, and this page contains details for individual school districts. The survey was e-mailed to 348 Iowa school districts on January 22; within a week, 206 superintendents had replied. Budgeting for zero percent growth will require cuts in staff, supplies and/or programming, because school districts face rising costs every year no matter what the legislature approves. Click the links above for details on likely cuts, as well as information on how school districts would likely spend additional funds if lawmakers approve a 4 percent allowable growth for this year.

A bill setting allowable growth at 4 percent for the 2014 fiscal year passed the Iowa Senate yesterday on party lines, 26 votes to 23. Four percent allowable growth works out to about $135 million in additional state support for K-12 schools next year. Another bill containing a 4 percent ($13.7 million) increase in state funding “for class-size reductions, professional development and teacher salary supplements” also passed by 26 votes to 23. The details of the roll calls are in the Senate Journal (pdf). A third education-related bill passed unanimously yesterday. It would “provide another $38.9 million to offset potential local property tax increases under the state’s school foundation aid formula.”

During yesterday’s Senate floor debate, some Republicans said allowable growth should not be debated until an education reform bill has passed.

“We’re moving ahead with allowable growth in a premature fashion,” said Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Red Oak, one of 23 Republicans to vote against Senate File 52.

That drew an incredulous response from Sen. Herman Quirmbach, D-Ames, chairman of the Senate Education Committee and the bill’s floor manager, who noted that lawmakers already are a year out of compliance because the GOP-run Iowa House refused to take up the Senate-passed school funding bill last year as prescribed by state law. “We’re violating the law by a year and yet you say we’re premature,” he said.

The Republican position on this issue makes no sense to me. Branstad has repeatedly called for two-year state budgeting to improve planning. In 2011, he even threatened to veto any budget that didn’t set funding levels for two years. Yet he won’t give school administrators a full year or even a few months lead time on planning their budgets for next year. I understand that Branstad wants legislators to move on his education reforms, but using hundreds of school districts as a bargaining chip will lead to cuts that hurt students and teachers.

Unfortunately, Iowa is probably headed down that path, because Iowa House leaders don’t sound inclined to take up the allowable growth bills anytime soon.

UPDATE: Some of the comments superintendents submitted with their surveys are compelling.

Iowa Senate Education Committee Chair Herman Quirmbach and Iowa House Education Committee ranking member Sharon Steckman discussed the school funding issue in this video:

  • The Carroll Supt. called Branstad a bully

    in a local legislative forum last week.

    Carroll Community School District superintendent Rob Cordes said at the forum that Branstad is bullying the Legislature by trying to force it to act on education reform before deciding on the allowable-growth funding for the state’s school districts.

  • This is a disgrace.

    It is also evidence that the fight is not about what is best for children.  Iowa has the highest high school graduation rate in the US, and respectable scores on national measurements of proficiency in reading and math.  Obviously the schools are doing something that is working and the task should be to improve education, not disrupt it.

    The Republicans are using Iowa children as hostages.  They want to force enactment of a corporate-friendly agenda that is backed by ALEC and designed to funnel public dollars to private pockets.

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