CEDAR RAPIDS — If education funding in Iowa received a grade, some education experts and legislators said Friday it would be a poor one.
Discrepancies in funding equality affects almost half of Iowa’s 333 school districts, Davenport Community School District Superintendent Art Tate said during a panel at The Gazette’s Iowa Ideas conference.
Tate said his district has been shortchanged $2.7 million a year because of the spending formula. With 66 percent of his students receiving free or reduced-price lunches, he said, “There are not enough assets to serve our students.”
Before the 1970s, public schools in Iowa mostly were funded through local property taxes until the state increased its aid as a portion of the school funding formula.
The formula allows some districts to spend as much as $175 more per student than others, meaning an additional hundreds of thousands of dollars for some schools’ general funds.
Although state lawmakers review the funding system every five years, state Rep. Mary Mascher, D-Iowa City, said nothing has been fixed.
“The Legislature does not have the political will to get it done,” Mascher said.
Friday’s panel came on the heels of school board elections and several bond votes throughout eastern Iowa last week. The Iowa City Community School District, for example, passed the biggest bond in state’s history when voters approved $191.5 million for facilities projects. Linn-Mar School District, however, failed to pass its $80 million bond.
The panel discussion also turned to how funding should be allocated, a topic to be discussed in the upcoming state legislative session. School districts currently receive an increase in the percentage of state supplemental aid from the budget, depending on overall revenue.
State Rep. Walt Rogers, R-Cedar Falls and chairman of the Iowa House education committee, said he predicts legislators to start at the current standing of 44 percent of the state’s general budget “and go from there.”
“The biggest thing tightening our budget is Medicaid,” Rogers said. “There’s been a 6 percent increase overall budget-wise (in Medicaid funding) over the last 10 years.”
But Tammy Wawro, Iowa State Education Association president, pushed back, saying that having a percentage of an unknown number — as the general budget depends on still-incoming revenue — leaves much to the unknown.
“That doesn’t help us plan or make me feel comfortable about where we’re at,” Wawro said.
Instead, Wawro said teachers should be guaranteed a baseline within their incomes and benefits. This would be key, she said, in recruiting and retaining quality educators in the state’s districts.
“If we cannot be competitive with states outside of Iowa, we are going to be in a world of hurt, and we are not going to see kids staying in the state to teach here,” Wawro said.
In a discussion on school transportation, Rogers said there’s a need for more innovation and efficiency.
Allocating large portions of their state aid on their transportation can force some school districts to cut Advanced Placement courses and other programs, Wawro said.
Mascher also said a solution for rural schools, which struggle to offer more programs, can be found in an initiative through the Iowa Department of Education that offers high school courses online.
However, just having conversations on these issues could show that effort is being made in the right direction.
“Putting the stake in the ground is huge, but I think we’re there,” Tate said.