Despite deep divisions among Iowans over state education policy, we believe they all can agree: Iowa has frittered away its national reputation for public school education excellence, allowing decades of tradition to be erased by legislative leaders who say they support education, but have not delivered the funding and comprehensive reform.
Two education summits by Gov. Terry Branstad led to modest reforms that improved teacher training and somehow wound up eliminating most accountability for home schoolers. But those reforms haven't moved the needle on student funding or performance.
Davenport schools superintendent Art Tate is calling lawmakers' bluff with a bold move that will force discussion, and – we hope – action.
Tate said he is prepared to dip into his district’s ample reserve funds to continue paying for teachers, classes and programs the state legislature will not. He’ll have to flout state law that limits districts’ spending, even those with sufficient reserves. Davenport school board members are working with legislative leaders on a bill to authorize Tate and other superintendents to tap excess reserve funds for immediate needs.
The Davenport superintendent isn't waiting on legislation. Tate’s gambit pushes two points that will require a legislative response:
1. Iowa lawmakers sustain funding inequities that allow more per pupil spending in property rich districts and less in other districts. As a result, the quality and level of education varies widely across Iowa.
2. Iowa legislators have routinely missed their deadlines for establishing school funding in direct violation of state law. Any legal reprisals against Tate and Davenport school children will beg a pertinent ethical and legal question: When will legislators be held accountable for their chronically late school funding decisions?
A year of 'screwing public education'
Tate’s exasperation follows Saturday’s remarkable legislative forum at St. Ambrose University. We heard members of our Iowa Quad-City delegation speak candidly, forcefully and with deep frustration over Iowa’s self-inflicted education crisis.
Davenport school students donned t-shirts that read, “I am worth-less,” protesting the Iowa system that provides less state funding to them than to other Iowa students. After hearing questions about pending legislation to restrict teacher bargaining rights and delaying the start of the school year, Rep. Phyllis Thede apologized in advance for her language, then exploded: “This has been the year of just screwing the public education system. No funding. Messing with your start date. What the hell is going to happen next?”
Here’s what Rep. Cindy Winckler said will happen next: If House Republicans stick to their pledge of 1.25 percent allowable growth, Winckler said Iowa’s school budget guarantee law will allow local property tax increases to make up some of the difference. So legislators’ indecision and reluctance to fully fund schools could lead to local property tax hikes.
Worse, she said Gov. Branstad’s intrusion into the school start date has stymied negotiations. Branstad committed publicly to delaying school start until at least Aug. 23, leaving Republican lawmakers no wiggle room. She called the effort a “diversionary tactic” to thwart funding increases. “Instead of allowing the legislature to compromise, the governor interjects himself.”
'Just keep beating that dead horse'
Republicans were equally frustrated. Reps. Ross Paustian and Norlin Mommsen said the state simply cannot afford to allow schools more than a 1.25 percent spending increase. Paustian, R-Walcott, put it more bluntly during Saturday’s legislative forum: “I’ll say it again: Tell me where you want to cut. We’ll just keep asking that question, and I’ll keep answering that way, so just keep beating that dead horse and we’ll keep beating it all day long.”
His “dead horse” reference drew gasps from students and educators in the room, followed by applause from some taxpayers who agreed with Paustian.
Yet Winckler and others pointed out the legislature just approved a 47 percent gas tax hike for roads. And lawmakers still allow Iowa corporations – including some that pay no state income tax – to deduct research and development expenses. Those credits totaled $51 million in 2014, money that could support education.
Into this environment, Tate dropped a fire bomb. Lawmakers who won’t rectify long-standing funding inequities, or even meet their statutory obligation to set school funding, will have to respond.
We encourage them to respond in ways that support Iowa students, education and workforce development with the same enthusiasm they just displayed for Iowa roads and bridges.