Another fast-tracked education bill that will short Iowa’s public schools is vindictive amid ongoing COVID-19 challenges, Democrats say.
Introduced by Senate Republicans less than a week ago, the education plan that suggests a 2.2% funding increase — well below inflation levels — will be debated Tuesday on the Senate floor.
A number of Democrats have voiced concern over the bill, which would also trigger a 33% increase in the number of districts that would need to raise their local property taxes to account for declining enrollment.
The funding plan also comes with a provision that adds a $29.4 million qualified instruction supplement for public schools that held classes in-person this fall, compliant with Gov. Kim Reynolds’ mandates. Many believe that’s intentionally aimed at punishing the Des Moines Public School district.
“It is shameful and embarrassing and pathetic,” West Des Moines Democrat Sen. Claire Celsi said of the bill before it passed on Monday through the Senate Education Committee.
Education funding is tied to a school district’s previous year’s enrollment, and 2020 saw a significant drop in students statewide due to Kindergarten and Pre-K students who have stalled the start of school during COVID.
This decline activates the “Budget Guarantee,” an aspect of Iowa code that guarantees districts with declining enrollment will get some small increase in funding by supplementing state aid with increased local property taxes.
In the Senate Republicans’ proposed education bill, funding levels would trigger 141 of the state’s school districts to receive less money and the budget guarantee kick in—up from last year’s 106 and an increase of $20.4 million to property taxpayers in those districts.
In Des Moines, this could be $4.4 million, in West Des Moines, $350,000. Most schools really need around a 3.7% increase in state funding to not hit their budget guarantee, according to Windsor Heights Democrat Sen. Sarah Trone Garriott.
“We are applying an inadequate amount of funding to an artificially suppressed level of enrollment for 2021,” said Trone Garriot to the education committee on Monday. “The number’s just too low. It’s just way too low for what our schools have been dealing with. And if we’re not even hitting inflation then we’re losing ground.”
Sioux City Democrat Sen. Jackie Smith said that the minimal funding on top of school privatization discussions seems particularly targeted during a year when schools have dealt with a number of pandemic related challenges.
“I just don’t get it. It feels like an attack. But what I don’t understand is how you could actually think that cuts to education funding can stimulate educational improvements,” Smith said in an interview with Iowa Starting Line.
“I know we’ve had voucher talks, I know we argue over school funding every year, but it seems to be just more extreme.”
An ongoing battle between the Des Moines Public school system and Gov. Reynolds is also at play in the Senate education funding bill—Democrats say the $29.4 million qualified instruction supplement for public schools that held classes in-person this fall is meant to disqualify districts like Des Moines from increased funding.
Their dispute began in September when the largest school district in the state delayed, then began their 2020-21 school year online because of the pandemic despite the Republican governor’s orders to offer at least half of their instruction in person. The Iowa Department of Education determined that Des Moines Public School District was not compliant with state requirements.
“A more intentional provision—some of the words I heard on the subcommittee were childish, punishment, cruel and revenge,” Trone Garriott said on the Senate floor after an education subcommittee.
“I heard a lot of emotion from the families of the Des Moines public school children who are being told loud and clear by the Legislature that their children are worth less to the Iowa Senate than all other children because our governor won’t reconcile with the Des Moines public school system. The parents know exactly why this is happening and what’s going on.”
The Des Moines schools in a Feb. 4 press release outlined their plan to make up instructional time during the non-compliant period.
“Making the children of Des Moines the whipping boys for the dispute between the governor and the Des Moines schools administration, that to me is unconscionable,” said Ames Democrat Sen. Herman Quirmbach on Monday during the education committee debate. “I understand that people on both sides of this dispute believe that they are acting in the best interest… but please people, can’t we set that aside? Fights between adults should not be visited by shortfunding the education of our children. And that’s what this bill threatens to do.”
Cedar Rapids Democrat Sen. Rob Hogg said that the Senate provision that gives additional money to school districts that have been compliant with the governor’s COVID mandates is consistent with how Republicans have approached the pandemic at the Legislature.
“Iowa Republicans in the Iowa Legislature don’t just disagree with Iowans who take the coronavirus seriously, I think they mock us. I think they’re kind of behaving like school yard bullies and making fun of people who believe that we should take public health emergency seriously,” Hogg said an interview with Iowa Starting Line.
“Do they want to punish school boards that want to stand up to Gov. Reynolds because they want to keep students, families and staff safe? I think they do.”
Wayne Republican Sen. Amy Sinclair argued the bill was “not about revenge,” but it was also put forward in hopes of “holding elected officials and the people who they appoint to do jobs who flagrantly violate Iowa code.”
“I would just suggest this isn’t about revenge, it’s about using our dollars to the wisest use that we have and about holding elected officials and the superintendent that they hired accountable for flagrant violations of the law,” she said on Monday during education committee debate.
House Republicans have proposed a slightly larger, 2.5% base increase in funding. Their bill also does not include the provision which punishes school districts for non-compliance with COVID-19 mandates.
by Isabella Murray