The Iowa House this past week took an already troubled piece of legislation, ripped out its guts and sent it to the Senate.
But sometimes, even a deeply flawed bill is better than nothing.
Senate File 455 -- the so-called "school equity bill" -- wasn't a piece of legislative genius when it last year rolled out of Iowa's upper legislative chamber. It would have taken 10 years to close the fundamentally unjust $175 per-pupil gap in state aid that hamstrings some schools districts and advantages others. It was a punt, which allocated just $2.8 million -- $5 per pupil -- to that end in its first year, meaning that future Legislatures would have to bear the burden of making districts whole.
But Iowa was, and still is, a state wholly run by a GOP that's slashing services in the middle of a budget cycle and addicted to the idea of coffer-emptying cuts to personal income taxes. Last year, SF 455 merited support because, in that political moment, it was the best for which anyone -- especially Davenport Community School District -- could hope.
And that political reality remains true.
Iowa House, this past week, finally took up SF 455, grudgingly after sitting on it for a year. And, unsurprisingly for a body that last year refused to even debate SF 455, the House further neutered the bill.
House Republicans scuttled the 10-year rollout, instead transforming the bill into a one-year $5 bump in per-pupil aid to dozens of districts, including Davenport's, where officials have screamed from the rooftops for parity. In so doing, the House version would require the Legislature to annually renew or rewrite the legislation and, over time, remain committed to a proposal that substantially ramps up spending on its back end.
Let's just say, we have our doubts.
In short, the House rewrite of SF 455 makes it incredibly likely that, in a year or two, as Iowa's budget woes drag on and the soon-to-be enacted tax cuts bleed cash, lawmakers renege. And that's why state Rep. Cindy Winckler, D-Davenport, tried and failed to resurrect the multi-year package from the House floor.
SF 455 in its current incarnation isn't a great bill. It's not even a good one. And yet, it's incumbent on Iowa Senate to either adopt the House draft or negotiate in reconciliation a middle ground that can survive both chambers.
SF 455 should become law not because it's a quality piece of legislation that adequately addresses a shameful economic disparity that only furthers economic segregation among rich and poor districts, such as those in Davenport and Maquoketa. The Legislature can't be trusted to fulfill any long-term commitment to buying down school funding, especially when the House would only pay for an additional $5 for a single year.
No, SF 455's primary value lies in its admission that, for too long, Iowa has picked winner and losers. If passed and signed by Gov. Kim Reynolds, Iowa state government would admit, on paper, that select districts have been given short shrift by state policy that no doubt drives would-be homeowners to neighboring districts.
And even that small something merits support in the Senate and the governor's signature.
It's worthy of support because for decades Iowa turned a blind eye to its state-sponsored economic injustice. It's worthy of support because it would bolster the defense of Davenport Superintendent Art Tate, who faces de-licensure because he tapped reserve accounts to fund the district at a level on par with its neighbors.
It's worthy of support because Iowa would be hard-pressed to walk back its admission of guilt. And that, at the very least, is a necessary step if Iowa's shameful legacy of picking winners and losers is to ever be truly fixed.