Quit stalling and make a deal on Iowa school funding

Iowa legislative leaders like to boast about how well they work together, in contrast to the “gridlock” seen in Washington when different parties controlled the upper and lower chambers of Congress.

Yet Iowa lawmakers can be remarkably slow to move toward obvious solutions to some disagreements. Less than two weeks before school districts need to adopt budgets covering the 2015/2016 academic year, Iowa House Republicans and Senate Democrats are nowhere close to a deal on K-12 school funding. What is their problem?  

Under a law unanimously approved by Iowa legislators and signed by Governor Terry Branstad in 1995, the state “allowable growth” figure for the 2015/2016 academic year should have been adopted more than a year ahead of time, in February 2014.

But since 2012, Iowa House Republicans have refused to abide by that schedule. At first they insisted on delaying a school funding decision until after the Iowa legislature had approved a broad education reform bill. That bill finally passed toward the end of the 2013 legislative session. The next year, House Republican leaders came up with a different excuse: “the law requiring school funding growth 18 months in advance is outdated.” Senate Democrats didn’t agree, and neither did the overwhelming majority of Iowa superintendents, who wanted a clear signal from the legislature when planning their budgets for the next year.

In theory, you can’t just unilaterally ignore a law you feel has outlived its purpose. But that’s exactly what House Republicans did in 2013 and again last year. In early 2014, the Democratic-controlled Iowa Senate approved a state funding level for the 2015/2016 school year, but the House never acted on the matter.

Fast-forward to this year. School districts need to adopt budgets by April 15, but they still have no idea how much state funding they will receive. In early February, Senate Democrats approved bills setting “allowable growth” at 4 percent for each of the next two years. In late January, House Republicans approved a bill on 1.25 percent allowable growth for the coming year. They floated a proposal of 2.45 percent for the 2016/2017 fiscal year, but didn’t pass a bill on that, because they still won’t abide by the 1995 law calling for allowable growth to be set more than a year in advance.

Anyone can do the math. If Senate Democrats want a 4 percent increase in K-12 school funding, while House Republicans want a 1.25 percent increase, the solution is to meet the middle.

Yet for nearly two months, House and Senate negotiators have not been able to move toward a deal. Both sides stuck to their guns.

Finally, Senate Democrats offered on March 31 to set allowable growth at 2.625 percent.

“We’re offering a compromise. We’re offering to split the difference,” said Sen. Herman Quirmbach, D-Ames.

Quirmbach said the offer is “not ideal for either side” but said “it’s a reasonable, affordable proposal.” […]

The Democrats’ proposal of a 2.625 percent increase would add roughly $105 million in increased school funding, according to Senate Democrat staff analysis. The Republicans’ 1.25 percent proposal would add roughly $50 million.

House Speaker Kraig Paulsen still says no deal and wants Democrats to approve the House funding level.

Sticking to your initial offer may work in some business negotiations, but not in a legislature where the other party controls the upper chamber. It’s not reasonable for Paulsen to resist a compromise, especially since the House proposal would be an extremely low allowable growth rate by historical standards.

This chart shows 40 years of Iowa legislative action on school funding. Allowable growth of 1.25 percent would be the third-lowest level since Iowa adopted this school funding formula during the 1970s.

I just don’t get it. During the 2011 legislative session, House Republicans and Senate Democrats drew battle lines over education funding early and refused to budge for months. The eventual deal split the difference, as any reasonable person could have suggested.

School districts need to plan for next year. Neither party will be happy with allowable growth of 2.625 percent, but it’s time for both sides to accept half a loaf and move on.  

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