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Iowa House And Senate Advance School Funding Bills

Iowa’s Capitol on a cold snowy sunny afternoon.
John Pemble
IPR file
The Iowa Senate is proposing a 2.2 percent increase in K-12 school aid; the House and the governor are proposing a 2.5 percent inscrease.

Lawmakers in the Iowa legislature are advancing competing proposals to fund schools next year, including special payments to cover the cost of keeping classes safe during the pandemic.

A bill headed to the full Senate (SF 269) would provide a 2.2 percent increase in state supplemental aid, worth an estimated $30 million in new funding from the state’s general fund. The proposal also includes increased aid to close gaps in transportation funding and $29.4 million to help schools bear the cost of educating students during an ongoing pandemic.

A funding bill passed in the House Education Committee (HF 438) would increase state supplemental aid by 2.5 percent, matching Gov. Kim Reynolds’ proposed increase.

Republican supporters in each chamber say the proposals are in line with last year’s approved increase of 2.3 percent.

“This bill increases funding to each and every student in the state of Iowa by $170 per year,” Sen. Amy Sinclair, R-Allerton, told lawmakers in the Senate Education Committee. “Multiply that out for an average classroom of 20 or 25 kids and it’s a significant increase for each and every classroom.”

But Democrats say the funding proposals fall short of what districts need and create unintended consequences.

Statewide enrollment dropped by nearly 6,000 students this fall as many parents held their children out of school during the pandemic. As a result, a similar percentage increase in state aid represents a smaller dollar increase next year when schools expect student numbers to rebound.

Also, the proposed rates would trigger budget guarantees for dozens of districts with declining enrollment, allowing them to make up for lost state funding by collecting additional local property taxes.

According to the Legislative Services Agency, 141 districts would qualify for guarantees worth up to a total of $28.6 million under the Senate bill, a $20.4 million increase over last year. Sen. Sarah Trone-Garriott, D-Windsor Heights, said most of that could be offset with a larger state aid increase.

“In a year when we have such a significant surplus in our state, and a significant rainy day fund, there’s really no reason that we should be making taxpayers pay the difference when we could definitely make sure that education is adequately funded at an appropriate level,” Trone-Garriott said.

Prioritizing Pandemic Payments

The House and Senate would each provide additional one-time funding for school districts to help pay for precautions they’ve taken against COVID-19, but in the Senate the state’s largest district would miss out after defying Gov. Kim Reynolds’ guidelines for in-person learning.

As part of the Senate bill, schools would receive an additional $65 per student, worth an estimated $29.4 million statewide, to pay for cleaning supplies, personal protective equipment, HVAC upgrades and other unexpected costs.

However, any districts that used all-remote learning without state permission would be disqualified. That implicates Des Moines Public Schools, which started the year in all-virtual classes without the required waiver from state officials.

Crystal Loving, a parent of two children in DMPS, said in a Senate subcommittee hearing Monday that the bill punishes students for decisions made by administrators to keep schools functioning safely.

“I respect that some may be frustrated with decisions made by district leadership, and so be it, but the language in this bill means funding to support my children’s safe education experience will be denied,” Loving said. “While my district may have functioned without a waiver, it doesn’t mean my children weren’t engaged in their education.”

Another parent, Shelley Skuster, called it a “childish” way to handle the conflict between the state and Des Moines schools.

Sen. Sinclair said in an Education Committee meeting that the Senate proposal is not meant as revenge against DMPS, but she added that it is meant as a response to decisions made by district leaders.

“Their unwillingness to educate (students) from August to November left it so that they did not have those additional costs that other districts did,” Sinclair said. “This isn’t about revenge, it’s about using our dollars to the wisest use that we have and about holding elected officials, and the superintendent that they hired, accountable for flagrant violations of the law.”

A related stand-alone bill (HF 439), advanced by the House Education Committee on Monday, creates a $30 million fund to cover schools’ COVID-related expenses.

The House proposal would divide the money based on the number of days a district offered in-person school through the end of January. Any district that allowed at least 50 percent of students to attend in-person would qualify for payments, but the schools that offered the most days of all in-person learning would receive the largest share.

Rep. Cindy Winckler, D-Davenport, questioned why schools should receive less money to pay for online learning platforms and deep cleaning in between hybrid classes.

“This bill only supports one of those models, even though school districts played by the rules they were given with all three options,” Winckler said. “Why are we only supporting one model?”

House Education Committee Chair, Rep. Dustin Hite, R-New Sharon, said the fund would have less impact if hybrid and virtual learning were given as much weight as classes held in-person.

“This bill is not about punishment, it’s not about rewards, it’s simply about helping with those costs that those districts who were in-person experienced,” Hite said.

Public school advocates asked lawmakers in a House subcommittee to avoid the debate over which schools were worthy of pandemic payments and to add the funding to state supplemental aid.

Grant Gerlock is a reporter covering Des Moines and central Iowa