DES MOINES — Education advocates pleaded unsuccessfully Wednesday with GOP legislators for increased state aid to K-12 schools, prompting an Iowa City Democrat to accuse House Republicans of “sabotaging” 2013 state teacher leadership reforms by failing to adequately fund education for the next two fiscal years.
Lobbyists representing school boards, teachers and rural and urban schools argued the scaled-back 2 percent growth in state aid offered by majority House Republicans for fiscal 2017, on top of their 1.25 percent increase for next school year, would result in larger class sizes, fewer teachers, higher property taxes and more school closures in rural Iowa.
“This does not get us to world-class education and we are disappointed,” Connie Ryan-Terrell of the Interfaith Alliance of Iowa Action Fund told a House Appropriations subcommittee that approved a 2 percent increase in state supplemental aid for K-12 public school districts for the fiscal year beginning July 1, 2016. The fiscal 2017 state aid level also was approved by the full committee on a 14-10 party-line vote Wednesday and readied for a future floor debate.
“The students’ needs are increasing at a time state resources are not,” added Margaret Buckton, who represents the Rural School Association of Iowa and the Urban Education Network. She warned that continued low per-pupil increases in state education aid will close rural schools.
It was concern over state resources that prompted the House GOP position, said Rep. Chuck Soderberg, R-LeMars, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, noting that projected state revenue growth was scaled back since a House panel earlier approved a 2.45 percent growth rate and new concerns have arisen over what impact a bird flu outbreak will have on Iowa’s economy.
“I think we need to be cautious,” said Rep. Cecil Dolecheck, a Mount Ayr Republican who noted the 2 percent increase coupled with money for education reforms would mean an extra $125 million to schools for the 2016-17 school year.
Gov. Terry Branstad has proposed a 2.45 percent boost in supplemental state aid for K-12 schools in fiscal 2017 while Democrats who control the Iowa Senate favor a 4 percent boost.
“That’s below the governor’s number, and we thought the governor’s number was inadequate,” said Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal, D-Council Bluffs. “We’ll be happy to take a two-year deal on school funding, but not at the level they’re talking about.”
However, House Speaker Kraig Paulsen, R-Hiawatha, told reporters, “I don’t think 4 percent is realistic at all” in assessing Democrats’ position.
Dolecheck said the yearly $50 million commitment for the state’s teacher leadership and mentoring initiative equated to an extra 1.5 percent in state funding to schools for each of the next two fiscal years on top of the base increases being discussed.
However, Rep. Mary Mascher, D-Iowa City, a retired school teacher, said the education reform money was intended to be considered separately from base state aid.
“Our folks are stressed,” said Brad Hudson of the Iowa State Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union.
He and other education advocates questioned modest state aid increases at a time when state revenues are projected to grow by 6 percent next fiscal year. Hudson noted that legislators are forging ahead with commercial property tax commitments next fiscal year that outpace state aid increases. Mascher called it “hypocritical” for House Republicans to push other tax-cut proposals that would further eat into state resources already inadequate to meet state needs.
“I’ve never seen a year where education has become such a political football,” Mascher said.
Soderberg said he, too, is frustrated that school funding has become politicized and he called it “unfortunate” that some speakers implied that GOP legislators were valuing property above kids, but he believed his caucus was taking a responsible approach to spending given the economic uncertainty and competing budget demands.
“I think the last thing we want to do is overcommit. We all know what that feels like. We lived that in the late 2000s,” Soderberg said, noting that former Gov. Chet Culver had to cut state spending by 10 percent across the board when the economy plunged into recession.
The split-control Legislature already is entrenched in a months-long dispute over funding for the coming school year. Republicans have proposed a 1.25-percent increase, while Democrats have lowered their initial proposal of 6 percent to 2.625 percent.
A compromise under consideration would boost state aid to school by 1.25 percent and add another $55 million in one-time surplus money for fiscal 2016 that would not be built into baseline per-pupil spending.