There was bitter debate in the legislature Wednesday over how much money the state can afford to spend on K-12 schools next year.
The GOP-controlled House and Senate tentatively agreed to raise per-pupil spending by 1 percent for all districts, which was sharply opposed by minority Democrats.
Rep. Phil Miller is a Democrat from Fairfield. Last year at this time, as school board president, he was overseeing a $900,000 budget cut.
“Two years ago we cut $550,000, and three years ago it was $330,000,” Miller said. “Those were all painful events.”
As a result, Miller said, they closed an elementary school, reduced teachers and support staff, and increased class sizes.
Democrats argue that’s common across the state after three years of raises for schools that did not cover the cost of inflation. They say it will only get worse under the Republican plan for next year to raise basic state aid to all school districts by 1 percent.
Republicans defend their plan.
"We want to continue to maintain our priority to Iowa schools and Iowa students," said Rep. Cecil Dolecheck (R-Mount Ayr). “One percent is the most we can do."
Dolecheck said the state must meet other commitments to the courts and human services.
But Democrats say state tax receipts are expected to grow by 4 percent next year, so 1 percent for schools isn’t right. And they warn of consequences beyond the classroom.
For example, for schools with declining enrollment, costs will get pushed onto property taxes if state aid is only increased by 1 percent.
Rep. Sharon Steckman (D-Mason City) spelled out how much property taxes would go up in certain Republican districts back home.
“Rep. Hager, a $72,000 raise in property taxes because of this one percent,” Steckman said. “Rep. Grassley, $41,000.”
Steckman offered an unsuccessful amendment to give schools a 3 percent raise instead. She said that would have meant no property tax hikes in those districts.
Democrats also argued if the state weren’t giving so many tax breaks to industry there would be plenty of money for schools.
“Since 2007 we have given over $100 million in state aid to Google, Microsoft, and Facebook, the second, third, and fourth most profitable companies in the world,” said Rep. Bruce Hunter (D-Des Moines.)
But House Education Committee Chairman, Rep. Walt Rogers (R-Cedar Falls) made no apologies for how his party has supported Iowa schools during their years in the majority.
“In an economy that’s been stagnant, we have done a pretty good job of taking care of education in the past seven years in this body,” Rogers said.
Rogers cites a study placing Iowa fourth in the nation for increased education spending in recent years. He said thousands of new teachers are employed and class sizes have shrunk.
Democrats offered contrasting statistics.
“The Republican investment in public education has been the lowest in Iowa history for seven of the last eight years,” said Rep. Mary Mascher (D-Iowa City). “That’s a fact.”
“If you go into a school like some of our legislators have, and see those classes, they’re packed,” added Rep. Steckman.
House Appropriations Chair Rep. Pat Grassley (R-New Hartford) said Democrats are overstating the problem with the tax credits the state is handing out to Iowa businesses.
“It’s easy to blame tax credits as the sole problem because it polls well in certain districts,” Grassley said.
Grassley said he warned superintendents in his district that they might get even less than a 1 percent increase in state aid next year. He says they’re thankful for what they’re getting.
“I love how Republicans often times lowball numbers and told everybody this fall it’s going to be zero percent,” responded Rep. Mascher. “You give them one percent you think it’s a gift. It’s not.”
Gov. Reynolds proposed a slightly larger 1.5 percent increase for schools. She has implied she’ll sign a 1 percent increase when it reaches her desk.
The Senate added $14 million of additional help for schools to address inequities between districts, including transportation costs. Their bill goes back to the House.
Story opening was edited at 5:47 a.m. 02/08 to clarify target of funding increase.