Iowa state Sen. Roby Smith

Davenport North High School's Anthony DeSalvo and Issac Stolmeier talk with state Sen. Roby Smith, R-Davenport, in February during a visit to the state Capitol in Des Moines. The students lobbied legislators regarding a bill to fix school funding inequities in the state.


Iowa's legislative session isn't quite done yet, but the bill aimed at curbing inequities in the state's school funding formula is all but dead, according to lawmakers and others.

The Davenport Community School District has been complaining about the formula that allows other districts to spend more per pupil than it does. And although the Senate passed a bill to close that gap last month, it has remained stalled in the House.

"The main issue was there's no revenue to do it," Rep. Walt Rogers, chair of the House Education Committee, said this week.

Rep. Pat Grassley, the New Hartford Republican who chairs the House Appropriations Committee, where the bill currently sits, said he thinks the bill will be "part of the conversation next year." 

Last month, the state's Revenue Estimating Conference said the government would fall $131 million short of anticipated revenues. That's changed much of what's happening at the Capitol, and lawmakers have been looking where to cut, not at new spending. The equity bill that passed the Senate has a first-year cost of $14 million and $204 million over the next 10 years. The legislation also dealt with inequities in transportation funding.

Bills are usually not declared officially dead until a session ends, but even local advocates held out little hope.

Sen. Roby Smith, R-Davenport, who shepherded the bill through the Senate, was loathe to give up. But, asked Tuesday night if the bill was stalled for this year, he said, "That's what I'm hearing."

A lobbyist who has been working with the Davenport district on the legislation, Margaret Buckton, said the bill ran into "a brick wall" because of the new revenue estimates.

Gov. Terry Branstad's office declined to comment. Earlier this year, Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds said she was fairly confident the Legislature would act on the matter. Other lawmakers, including Senate Democratic Leader Rob Hogg of Cedar Rapids had said it was a priority. The issue already has been toward the top of the agenda for Quad-City-area legislators.

The inequity stems from a state-led shift in the 1970s away from a largely property tax-based funding system for schools that sought to make spending across the state more equitable.

Davenport's per pupil spending limit is $31 less than the statewide average, but some districts can spend $175 more per pupil than Davenport.

The equity issue gained attention when Davenport Superintendent Art Tate said he would spend beyond state limits. And in December, the state Education Department brought Tate up on an ethics complaint in connection with the issue. No hearing has been set on the matter, but school officials aren't backing down. Last week, the district passed a budget that included $2.7 million in spending that would go over the state's limit.

Officials pointed out that the progress made this year wasn't wasted. Because the Legislature is in the midst of a two-year session, the bill that passed the Senate can be taken up next year. In addition, while revenue estimates for the 2018 fiscal year also are down from expectations, there's hope in some quarters that future estimates could change that — or that other steps, such as the possibility of reducing business tax credits, could provide more revenue.