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Iowa educators ask for more school funding amid staffing challenges
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IOWA LEGISLATIVE PREVIEW

Iowa educators ask for more school funding amid staffing challenges

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The Iowa State Capitol building Friday, July 31, 2020, in Des Moines.

Faced with filling staff openings at schools, obtaining adequate school funding and having more flexibility in hiring are two of the priorities that the state’s school leaders say they want the Iowa Legislature to address when it begins its 2022 session this week.

School districts across Iowa are struggling to offer employees a competitive wage as state supplemental aid — which provides per pupil funding for K-12 public schools — cannot keep up with inflation and as the private sector also competes for workers as it, too, suffers shortages.

On the Iowa job board for schools, almost 200 job openings are posted for the Cedar Rapids Community School District alone.

“When I look at the account balance of our state — billions — they can afford to fund schools and staff,” said Cedar Rapids Superintendent Noreen Bush. “If we have this many openings right now in the middle of the year, what is March, April and May going to bring? We, as schools, can’t compete with other industries.”

Inadequate funding of schools forces schools to cut teachers, increase class sizes and provide fewer learning opportunities for students, according to Iowa school superintendents.

The Urban Education Network of Iowa, a group of Iowa’s largest public school districts, is advocating for funding with state supplemental aid set at 5%, including a minimum of 3.75% for inflationary costs and competitive wage benefits for staff and an additional 1.25% for child care and workforce challenges.

Last year, in contrast, Gov. Kim Reynolds signed a legislative compromise to raise state supplemental aid by 2.4%, which increased the state's general fund appropriation to schools and area education agencies from $3.38 billion to about $3.42 billion for fiscal 2022

Enrollment in Iowa’s schools dropped by 6,000 students in the 2020-21 school year amid the coronavirus pandemic. This year, many of those students — some of which had switched to home schooling — were returning to the classroom, decreasing the amount of spending per student for the 2021-22 school year.

Republican Jack Whitver, the Senate majority leader from Ankeny, said the state has “continued to increase funding for schools every year.”

Nonetheless, school funding has not kept up with inflation, said Democrat Zach Wahls, the Senate minority leader from Coralville.

“Iowa has gone from being a national leader (in education) to stagnating and slipping down the rankings, and I think that’s probably exacerbating the workforce crisis,” Wahls said.

Jennifer Konfrst, Democratic House minority leader, said “underfunding schools is underfunding kids.”

She suggested tapping into state surplus money “to put it into schools … and make up for a lot of things that have fallen by the wayside because of underfunding for the last decade.”

Teacher shortages

Many Iowa schools began the hiring process for the 2022-23 school year by December 2021 — months earlier than in previous years — to try to “lock in” new teachers, according to Linn-Mar Superintendent Shannon Bisgard.

“The recent decade of underfunding schools is catching up to us,” he said, adding that he received only one applicant for an open special education position for the 2021-22 school year. “We’re not able to offer a competitive wage to our teachers and fewer students are going in to education.

“Eventually, if you don’t have enough people, you end up not having the same quality of people,” Bisgard said. “Without quality educators, we don’t have a chance to be successful in an education system.”

Some of the school staffing shortage could be alleviated by forgiving student loan debt of up-and-coming teachers, making it easier for educators to transfer their teaching license from state to state and revising requirements to allow non-traditional teachers in to the classroom, educators suggested.

“We want to make sure we have high standards for our teachers and also want to make sure they’re realistic,” Bisgard said.

Democratic Sen. Claire Celsi, a member of the Senate Education Committee from West Des Moines, said schools across the state are suffering because of a shortage of teachers, substitute teachers and other staff.

“Schools need flexibility and innovation to hire substitutes, bus drivers and other personnel and to use non-traditional teachers (with proper pedagogy). Our educators and families are tired and stressed — and that is not lost on me,” she said.

Vouchers and choice

Last year, a voucher bill that would allow public money to be used for private schools did not pass in the Iowa Legislature.

House Study Bill 243, which would create the private scholarship program, would allow K-12 students attending one of 34 low-performing public schools to get a scholarship of about $5,200 to attend another school — religious, private, charter or home-school.

Whitver said support for vouchers “isn’t going away” as parents continue to ask for more school choice.

“There’s a lot more Iowans engaged in giving parents more choice, and a version of the K-12 scholarships still is alive in the House,” he said. “The focus isn’t going away, the support for that issue isn’t going away.”

But opponents like Konfrst say vouchers could have a “devastating impact” on rural schools.

“If we give public money to private schools and we make it possible for kids to leave small towns and go to private schools with public dollars, then those small schools are just going to have to shut,” Konfrst said.

Public schools already offer families choice, said Bush, the Cedar Rapids superintendent. The Cedar Rapids district, for example, offers education opportunities in magnet schools, in-person, virtually and home-school options and allows open enrollment.

“We’re already concerned about funding for our schools, and (vouchers) takes funding away from our schools,” Bush said.

Republican Rep. Megan Jones, from Sioux Rapids, said she would open the conversation “beyond vouchers” to find ways to help schools.

“We need to dive into burdens that are limiting our schools, archaic laws, and open-up options — specifically for public schools,” she said.

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