Legislators and progressive activists filled a conference room at the Statehouse on Monday to advocate for a larger increase in education funding . The roundtable discussion was the first in a series of “Moral Mondays,” a new program from a coalition of progressive organizations aimed at highlighting positive, progressive legislation working its way through the Legislature. Democratic State Representatives Cindy Winckler, Patti Ruff, Marti Anderson, Mary Wolfe, Vicki Lensing and Sally Stutsman joined together this Monday to speak on the education topic.
At issue is the paltry 1.25% increase in education spending the House passed recently on a party-line vote. House Democrats proposed a 6% boost to make up for years of low allowable growth increases to no avail. “Where our schools are at right now is a critical junction,” said Representative Patti Ruff, a past school board member from Clayton County. She argued that the House Republican’s measure “doesn’t even begin to cover the increases” that many school districts face in higher yearly costs. “It’s not adequate. It’s almost a slap in the face to our public school system. Our teachers work very hard and give our children every chance at a good education. In some districts they’re struggling to keep the lights on and the busses running.”
Both Ruff and Representative Cindy Winckler of Davenport warned of the consequences of low increases to education funding. “It means programs are cut, class sizes are increased, and innovation doesn’t occur,” Winckler stated. The legislators also cautioned that individual school districts may need to raise property taxes to cover the shortfall in needed operating expenses.
Education funding has emerged as the main contentious flashpoint at the Statehouse between Democrats and Republicans since 2010, when a sharp decrease in state revenue precipitated drastic budget cuts. Since then, Governor Terry Branstad and the Republican majority in the House have fought against larger allowable growth increases for school, even long after state revenue rebounded.
Winckler pushed back in particular against the idea that the state committed too much for education funding in the first place, saying, “It was never an over-spending issue, it was a significant reduction in revenue.” She argued that if you now adjust Iowa’s education spending to inflation, the state is spending $641 per pupil less than it was in Fiscal Year 2010. She also claimed that the state has plenty more money to allocate than Republicans are allowing, pointing to a $441 million surplus from last year. She estimated each 1% increase in education funding equated to about $35 million.
The Legislature’s timing in setting allowable growth is also causing major issues for Iowa school districts. According to Iowa code, education funding is supposed to be set in the first 30 days of session. However, with partisan disagreements now often dragging out the funding debate, schools have a harder time properly preparing, according to Ruff. “Now you’ll really see the pressure on our districts,” Ruff said of the current education debate likely not getting resolved in the next few weeks. “We’ll have districts handing out pink slips because they have to plan for the worst.”
On the Senate side, Democrats are expecting to pass a 4% increase at some point this week. After that, it’s anyone guess as to what the final number will be when it arrives on Branstad’s desk.
The Moral Mondays network of progressive organizations plan on meeting every Monday at noon in Room G15 of the Statehouse. Connie Ryan Terrell from Iowa’s Interfaith Alliance group kicked off yesterday’s first meeting. Their goal is to support the “moral good sought through policies that span a range of progressive issues and works for the advancement of Iowa values like equality, fairness, and justice.” The organizations making up the coalition are:
Family Planning Council of Iowa
Interfaith Alliance of Iowa Action Fund
Iowa Citizen Action Network
Iowa Federation of Labor, AFL-CIO
Iowa Safe Schools
Methodist Federation for Social Action
Planned Parenthood of the Heartland
by Pat Rynard