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Education budget flat for public universities, orders study of DEI programs

Grant Gerlock
IPR file
The state budget makes no increase to the general operating budget for Iowa's three public universities. It also puts the first payment toward an education savings account program that will help families pay private K-12 school tuition.

The education budget passed by the Iowa legislature (SF 560) Wednesday calls for the Board of Regents to complete a comprehensive study of diversity, equity and inclusion, or DEI, programs at the state’s public universities, while making no increase in state funding to their general operating budgets.

The bill also puts a freeze on hiring for DEI work at the universities while the study is conducted.

The order for the study follows a proposal that stalled earlier in the session that would have banned all DEI spending at the University of Iowa, Iowa State University and the University of Northern Iowa.

Rep. Carter Nordman, R-Panora, told the House appropriations committee the regents are being told to describe all of the diversity trainings and activities that take place at the universities, how much is spent on salaries for employees that work on diversity, and any contracts or regulations that require DEI efforts.

“We’re going to look at all the resources that are being spent on these programs and make determinations next year,” Nordman said.

DEI programs have come under fire in other Republican-led states like Florida where the legislature has proposed its own ban on university funding for DEI.

Rep. Mary Madison, D-West Des Moines, said attacking diversity programs in Iowa will make it harder to convince people to move here.

“The statement you’re putting out says, ‘You’re not welcome,’” Madison said. “We say we want professionals from wherever and we make all kinds of allowances to get them here and your primary statement is to investigate diversity, equity and inclusion.”

Board of Regents President Michael Richards announced in March, after the initial funding ban was proposed, that the universities would pause any new DEI initiatives and the board would make a study of the programs already in place.

Flat funding at public universities, increase for community colleges

The general operating funds for the regents universities provided in the education budget would remain unchanged from last year at $218 million for the University of Iowa, $174.1 million for Iowa State University and $99.4 million for the University of Northern Iowa.

The budget does make increases to some specific programs at the universities. It includes $2.8 million to expand the nursing program at the U of I, $1.5 million to recruit more students into the teaching program at UNI, and $2.8 million to graduate more students from science and technology programs at ISU.

There is an increase of 3%, or about 7.2 million dollars, in general aid to community colleges that Republican lawmakers said is intended to help address workforce shortages across the state. Lawmakers also approved $6.5 million for a new grant program to provide up to $2,000 per semester to students attending regents universities looking to go into high-demand fields.

Cut to increase in funding for AEAs

The funding increase for Iowa’s Area Education Agencies would be reduced by nearly $30 million under a budget proposal passed in the legislature.

The state’s nine AEAs provide special education and other services, such as speech therapy and occupational therapy, to both public and private school students.

The legislature normally cuts state aid to AEAs from what is provided in the school funding formula, but opponents say this year’s proposal (SF 578) goes beyond what is typical. Rep. Beth Wessel-Kroeschell, D-Ames, said the agencies will have fewer resources just as state-funded scholarships kick in for families to enroll in private schools.

“This is why I’m concerned, because what the AEAs do goes directly to our students and a lot of those students are struggling,” Wessel-Kroeschell said.

Rep. Taylor Collins, R-Mediapolis, said the AEA budget was part an agreement made with the Senate and the governor’s office to secure this year’s 3% boost in state aid to K-12 public schools.

Sen. Tim Kraayenbrink, R-Fort Dodge, told lawmakers the Area Education Agencies would still see an overall budget increase of about $3.1 million, or 1%.

First funding for education savings accounts approved

The state budget approved this week includes $107.1 million in the first appropriation for Gov. Kim Reynolds’ plan to use state funding to help families pay the cost of private school tuition.

The education savings account program was passed in January. It will provide up to $7,600 of state funding per student, per year, to pay for private school enrollment.

Applications for ESAs will be accepted starting May 31. That date was announced Thursday after the Iowa State Board of Education approved administrative rules for the program.

House Minority Leader Jennifer Konfrst, D-Windsor Heights, said she’ll be watching to see what happens as the law takes effect. She said there have already been unintended consequences with some schools planning to charge more to students who receive state funding.

“That is not the intent of the legislation,” Konfrst said. “I am disappointed Republicans didn’t see that and try to protect families that are accepting school vouchers.”

House Speaker Pat Grassley, R-New Hartford, called the school choice bill a proud achievement in his closing address of the session. He said House Republicans will also be watching the program over the interim for possible changes to make next year.

Senate Majority Leader Jack Whitver said Republicans accomplished their priorities on education including the school choice law, a requirement for parental notice in gender affirming policies in schools and new restrictions for age appropriate books.

“It feels to me like this session we were a lot more successful getting those things accomplished and tying up the loose ends on the bills we were working on,” Whitver said. “From my standpoint I think we’re well positioned on education — whether public, private, charter, homeschool, whatever — to take the next step. And I don’t see a lot of new legislation that will be needed to get us to that level.”

In the first year, state-funded ESAs will be available to all incoming kindergartners and children that currently attend public schools. They will also be open to existing private school students from households earning up to 300% of the federal poverty level.

The state is contracting with a company called Odyssey to create the system where families will apply for ESAs. The deadline for applications is June 30th.

Grant Gerlock is a reporter covering Des Moines and central Iowa