Governor calls education increase ‘historic,’ but is it enough?

Rear view of students sitting with hands raised in classroom
Iowa's governor says she's proposed a "historic" commitment to education but school advocates say it can't make up for historic underfunding. (Photo by Getty Images)

During her Condition of the State address, Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds proposed what she called a “historic” investment in K-12 education — a 2.5% increase in per-pupil funding, equating to around $95.7 million to maintain “the best teachers and classrooms in the world,” she said. 

Reynolds’ proposal would make the state’s total appropriation for education around $3.4 billion — a big bump in comparison to the $1.2 billion appropriated in 2000 for supplemental state aid, a major funding source for school districts across the state as they plan their budgets.

But Democrats and some school advocates point out that while the dollar amount for schools has increased, it hasn’t kept up with the rate of inflation. 

Between fiscal years 2000-2010, an average annual increase of 3.6% was appropriated to schools. Between 2011-2020, that aid decreased to an average of 1.76% annually, according to data from the Legislative Services Agency. 

That number fails to keep up with inflation rates, advocates and Democrats say. Combined with the growing challenges Iowa schools are facing, including student behavioral issues and mental health challenges, they say Iowa schools have been underfunded for years and problems are now escalating.

Head shot of State Rep. Cindy Winckler
State Rep. Cindy Winckler is a Democrat from Davenport.

“You can handle inadequate funding for short term. You can’t handle it long term,” said Iowa Rep. Cindy Winckler, D-Davenport, House ranking member of the Education Appropriations Subcommittee. “It really puts our schools in a very difficult situation.”

Iowa Sen. Amy Sinclair, R-Allerton, head of the Senate Education Committee, said legislators haven’t determined whether they’re going with Reynolds’ proposal, but she said the amount seems sufficient for Iowa schools. 

While schools could always use more funding, Sinclair said her concern is making sure the state can cover the check the Legislature writes.

”I will not promise a number that the taxpayers in the state of Iowa can’t deliver,” Sinclair said.

Democrats, advocates point to growing challenges for Iowa schools

Schools are facing a growing list of challenges in 2020 that have escalated over the years, advocates say. 

Class sizes are becoming larger, but at the same time, the amount of teachers and staff to supervise classrooms is getting smaller, said Melissa Peterson, lobbyist for Iowa State Education Association, an organized labor group that represents school employees.

The need to address mental health and behavioral issues in students is more apparent, but more difficult with less staff, Peterson said.

While Peterson said she appreciates the governor’s 2.5% proposal, she fears the actual funding number will be lower, particularly since Republican leaders said income tax cuts are a priority.

“My concern is that her proposals are often the ceiling rather than the floor,” Peterson said.

An even bigger challenge is trying to create equity with the current funding model, in which state dollars are given per pupil, said Emily Piper, lobbyist with the Iowa Association of School Boards, which represents school boards and districts.

For rural districts, declining student population can create a financial strain. 

But growing school districts like Waukee and Ankeny also face their own challenges as they plan their budgets now without knowledge of what the Legislature will ultimately pass or how many students will actually enroll next year. 

Though Iowa law requires the Legislature to pass an education budget during its first 30 days in session, lawmakers have struggled with meeting the deadline in the last 10 years, according to the Iowa Department of Education.

“It becomes a balancing act,” Piper said.

Rep. Mary Mascher, D-Iowa City, said an increase of about 4% would better help schools get the resources they need to maintain their functions. Other Democrats also suggested around the same amount.

“She talked a lot about spending proposals, but also a lot of tax cuts,” Mascher said about Reynolds’ proposal. “I don’t know how you resolve that. You need the taxes in order to be able to afford the programs.”

Iowa Senate Majority Leader Jack Whitver, R-Ankeny

Senate Majority Leader Jack Whitver said the 2.5% increase proposed by the governor is “reasonable” for education. 

Like Sinclair, he said his main priority is assuring that whatever passes the Legislature is something that can be backed up. He pointed to fiscal year 2012, after former Iowa Gov. Chet Culver had announced a 10% across-the-board cut in 2010 amid a local and national recession. 

Lawmakers found one-time money to cover a 2% increase in school aid for fiscal year 2011, but overall state aid was capped short of full funding, according to the Legislative Services Agency. No increase was approved for the 2012 school year. 

“There were many years that the Legislature promised a lot of money and didn’t fund it and so whatever we promise, we’re going to fully fund, and that’s what we’ve done the last three years,” Whitver said. “We’ve had the trifecta and that’s what we’re going to continue to do.”

Solving the growing challenges Iowa schools are facing is a multifaceted issue, Sinclair said, including finding workers to fill jobs and keep students and teachers safe as reports come out regarding violence in classrooms.

Head shot of Sen. Amy Sinclair
State Sen. Amy Sinclair is a Republican from Allerton. (Photo courtesy of the Iowa Legislature.)

Shortages of teachers and staff in classrooms is similar to workforce issues other industries are facing, like law enforcement and computer science, Sinclair said. 

Proposals, like the governor’s pledge to ease licensing requirements in the state can help make Iowa more appealing to out-of-state workers, Sinclair said.

While more money could help schools, Sinclair said it’s a balance of priorities in the state.

“I’m sure they could do more with more money,” Sinclair said. “But we need to do what makes sense in the overall balance of the state budget.”

But even lawmakers pass a 2.5% increase, advocates say that just isn’t enough.

“We’ve just been underfunded for so long, over a decade now, without keeping up with the rate of inflation,” Peterson said. “We’d like to see a 3 percent or 4 percent (increase) to keep up with the rate of inflation.”

Linh Ta
Reporter Linh Ta comes to Iowa Capital Dispatch from the Des Moines Register, where she covered trending news, public safety and the suburbs. Most recently, she has covered retail business and followed both national and local trends to provide insight about the issues that matter the most to Iowans. Beyond traditional journalism, Ta has worked as a speech coach with the Des Moines Storytellers Project with the goal of sharing the diverse perspectives of Iowans from all walks of life. She is the 2019 winner of the Young Iowa Journalist Award and the winner of an Iowa Broadcast News Award. Email her at [email protected] or follow her on Twitter @linhmaita.