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Democrats Pushing 6 Percent Boost in Fiscal 2016 State Aid to K-12 Schools
By Rod Boshart, Reporter
DES MOINES, Iowa – Democrats who control the Iowa Senate are slated to consider legislation Monday that seeks to boost the state aid to schools by 6 percent for the school year that begins on July 1, 2015.
A Senate Education subcommittee is scheduled to consider a trio of measures that also would boost categorical funding the schools receive for supplemental teacher salaries, professional development, early intervention and teacher leadership programs by 6 percent. A third measure would allocate $47 million in state aid to replace local property tax obligations currently prescribed under the school foundation aid formula.
If approved, state aid per pupil in Iowa's public elementary and secondary schools would increase by $382 to $6,748 for each student. Last session the split-control Legislature passed and Republican Gov. Terry Branstad signed a 4 percent increase for the 2014-15 school year that will increase basic state aid by $245 per pupil to $6,366.
"Taking all three bills together (SSB 3105, SSB 3106, and SSB 3107), the estimated (fiscal) 2016 combined district cost will increase $266.6 million – a reflection of the total funding generated through the school aid formula," Shawn Snyder, a school financing expert with the Legislative Services Agency said in a memo.
Snyder noted that the proposed fiscal 2016 general fund appropriation for school aid would increase by an estimated $222.5 million. That would includes an extra $26.5 million for the property tax replacement provision, $167.1 million for regular school aid, $20.9 million for the state categorical supplement and $7.9 million for preschool aid. The calculation did not include the new teacher leadership supplement.
Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal, D-Council Bluffs, told reporters this week that Iowa's per-pupil spending currently lags behind the national average by about $1,500 "and we've been slipping." He said a Senate Education subcommittee would take up the school aid bills on Monday and pass them out of full committee next week so the measures can be debated the following week in accordance with state law.
"We believe it's important to obey state law," Gronstal told reporters, noting that Iowa's forward-funding law requires the Legislature to establish a future financing level for elementary and secondary schools within 30 days after the governor submits his budget plan – something Gov. Terry Branstad did on Jan. 14.
The governor and legislative Republicans have ignored the law in recent years, opting in favor of a biennial approach that avoids overpromising schools state aid before a clearer picture of state tax collections is available.
"I'm interested in how they intend to fund that," said Rep. Chuck Soderberg, R-LeMars, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee.
Branstad and the Legislature approved state aid increases for fiscal years 2014 and 2015 last session, but the governor did not make a fiscal 2016 recommendation in the budget plan he unveiled this month and House Speaker Kraig Paulsen, R-Hiawatha, said his chamber will wait until the 2015 session to address state aid for K-12 schools when lawmakers have a better sense of the level of resources that will be available.
"We do not have the revenue estimates going out that far, and so it's uncertain whether we could or could not (afford to fund that level)," noted Soderberg.
"I think the one thing that we want to be careful with is to overcommit and not have enough revenue to cover our commitments," he added. "We want to make sure we don't fall in the trap of over-committing. We lived that a number of years ago with the 10 percent across-the-board cut. I don't think we want to go down that road."
Mary Jane Cobb, president of the 34,000-member Iowa State Education Association, the state's largest teachers' union, said 6 percent is the level her association has been advocating.
"As we look at what the levels have been for the past several years, we think 6 percent is necessary to get schools up to a funding level that they can begin to restore some programs and some services to students that had been cut in previous years when allowable growth was lower and the economy wasn't going so well," Cobb said.
Paulsen said GOP lawmakers don't want to repeat a situation that occurred under former Gov. Chet Culver where the state passed a increase in aid to schools but then the governor was forced to order a 10 percent across-the-board spending reduction when an economic recession slashed state revenues.
However, Cobb said the Iowa and national economies are much stronger now and the state treasury has a large projected surplus, although policy makers warn much of that money has been committed for tax relief and school reform in future fiscal years.
"Given the resources available to the state, we think that that's a legitimate number," Cobb said.
When you look at in terms of where we've been, I don't have the concern that we're overcommitting," she added. "I think the state has the resources, it's just of matter of whether this is a priority. I think if funding our schools and providing adequate programming for children is what we want, then 6 percent is a reasonable number."