Battle Lines Drawn over Money for Schools

Jan 21, 2015

A yearly battle over how much of a raise to give K-12 schools is getting underway early at the statehouse this year.   

Republicans and school groups are staking out widely different positions so some tough negotiating lies ahead. 

The legislature was supposed to act last year to approve basic state aid for K-12 schools for the school year that starts this fall.   So Emily Piper with the Iowa Association of School Boards gave lawmakers some measured praise for getting started early this year.“I want to thank you for moving  quickly on fiscal year 16,” Piper says, “which should  have been accomplished last year.”

So schools are a little sore about the delays in appropriating money.  But they’re even more on edge about the Republican proposal to give schools a 1-point-25  percent increase in basic aid next year.    All the major education groups are asking for six percent and so the fight will be over how much each side will move to the middle.   Margaret Buckton represents the Urban Education Network  as well the Rural School Association of Iowa.  She says revenue increases to schools have lagged behind cost increases for many years. “There was a study put out by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities last May,”  Buckton says.  “It says  between  fiscal year 2008 and fiscal year 2014 Iowa  has lost 651 dollars  per student in our capacity to spend.”

Educators point out that the raise won’t even cover the average three perecent increase  in negotiated teacher salaries for the vast majority of schools.   And a budget that size would leave Iowa lagging behind other states in per pupil funding.   Brad Hudson with the Iowa State Education Association argues  state revenues are strong. “I have never seen this coming out of a recession where we have underfunded our schools like we are now,” Hudson says.   

But majority republicans led by Sioux City’s Ron Jorgensen say the money isn’t there for more than the governor’s  recommended one-point-25  percent  raise.   “Where's the money going to come from,” Jorgensen says.  “We're not cutting education.  I understand the need.  I certainly do.”

Jorgensen repeats the budget projections.   There’s 340 million dollars in new state tax revenues next year, and 445 million already promised to other things, including big property tax cuts. Jorgen adds  budget surpluses are dwindling.“And we have a mismatch like that,” Jorgenson says.  “That causes me heartburn.”

But educators say that means the state is valuing tax breaks for industry more than education for half a million kids.  Democratic house members lined up against the Republicans bill led by Representative Patricia Ruff of McGregor.“I'm all for getting the most bang for my buck,” Russ says, “but  this is ridiculous.”

But Mount Ayr Republican  Cecil Dolocheck mocks the school groups’ starting position.“You’re  asking for six percent,” Dolocheck says.  “Let’s  be realistic.  You don't expect that.” 

Dolocheck says House Republicans have already offered more for education than they really wanted to.“I was afraid the house would start out below the governor’s recommendations,” Dolocheck says.  “I'm glad we decided not to do that.  This starts the process and I"m glad we're doing it early.

Dolocheck says that will give schools time to negotiate raises for teachers.     

The Republican bill passed the House Education committee on a strict party-line vote.  It goes next to the full House, and then to the Democratic Senate .  Senate Democrats haven’t yet recommended how much to increase state aid for schools.   But they say the governor’s recommendation won’t do anything to get Iowa  schools up to the national average for per-pupil spending.