GOP lawmakers propose targeting aid to schools that held classes in person during pandemic

By: - February 4, 2021 3:59 pm

A hand puts a coin in a piggy bank on top of school books. (Photo by Getty Images)

Republicans in the Iowa House and Senate are proposing to condition school districts’ eligibility for extra COVID-related assistance to their compliance with the governor’s directive for offering in-person attendance options.

Republicans in the Senate unveiled their proposal for a 2.2% increase in per-pupil state aid for fiscal year 2022, which begins July 1, 2021. Gov. Kim Reynolds proposed a 2.5% increase, which would generate an increase of about $80 million in supplemental state aid.

Reynolds also proposed limiting eligibility for $20 million in additional state aid to school districts that complied with her emergency proclamations related to COVID-19. Districts were required to offer at least 50% of classes online when they returned last fall, unless they received a waiver due to COVID-19 outbreaks or high community positivity rates.

The Senate bill appropriates an extra $65 per student — but only for districts that were in compliance with Reynolds’ order.

Democrats blasted the proposal for targeting Des Moines Public Schools, which maintained remote-only classes after the state denied a waiver request.

“It’s ridiculous to single out Des Moines public school systems because the governor or the Senate or the House disagrees with what Des Moines public schools administration chose to do,” Rep. Jennifer Konfrst, D-Windsor Heights, said. “This is clearly a political move, and it is hurting kids.”

Des Moines schools spokesman Phil Roeder said $65 per student amounts to more than $2 million.

Roeder said it is “unfortunate that a dispute between adults might be used to punish more than 31,000 children.”

He added, “The state has processes in place for Iowa school districts that are not compliant on a range of issues, including making up instructional time at DMPS, which holds us accountable without punishing our students.”

Democrats also criticized Senate Republicans’ overall funding level as inadequate. Senate Minority Leader Zach Wahls, D-Coralville, said the proposal would leave 141 Iowa districts with no increase in state aid because of enrollment declines that are at least partially pandemic related.

“You know, once again, this is a slap in the face for students and educators and other school employees who have provided this essential service to students and families throughout the pandemic, and who now more than ever need real investments in public education, rather than the continued defunding that we’ve seen,” Wahls said.

House Republicans have not released their bill. However, Speaker Pat Grassley, R-New Hartford, said Thursday they are considering allocating the additional money based on how many days a district was offering 100% of classes in person. That would have a broader impact if districts cannot receive supplemental money for days of remote-only instruction that were authorized by a state waiver.

“If you were every day in the classroom, you’re obviously going to have those added costs every day of, of substitutes, cleaning, all those things,” Grassley said. “So our bill will maybe be a little different from the standpoint of the Senate’s policy wise, but dollars wise, I think that we’re looking at a significant investment as well.”

Grassley said he expected House Republicans’ overall proposal for per-pupil state aid to be “probably a little closer to the governor’s figure.”

The annual partisan battle over public school funding is especially heated this year not only because of the pandemic but because of Reynolds’ proposal to expand public support for private and religious schools. The Senate approved legislation last week to pay for scholarships for students who move out of underperforming school districts to a nonpublic school, among other provisions.

However, Grassley and Reynolds both indicated Thursday that Republicans in the House are not ready to endorse all parts of the expansive bill. Both cited “spin” or “misinformation” that has accompanied the highly controversial proposal, without citing what information has been misleading.

“We’ve already devoted some time to the governor’s bill, just so all the members understand because I think there’s a lot of a lot of spin from all sides on this,” Grassley said. “So we’ve been trying to just get an understanding of what the bill looks like and what the bill actually does.”

Reynolds, in a separate news conference, expressed confidence she’ll persuade lawmakers to move forward. “There is a lot of misinformation out there. And every day, we’re disputing what those myths are, and providing facts to legislators,” she said.

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