Lawmakers advance bills giving some Iowa schools extra state aid based on pandemic response

By: - February 8, 2021 6:20 pm

Mask mandates at Iowa schools are banned under a new state law. (Stock photo/Getty Images)

Shelley Skuster held a photo of her four children, smiling and holding hands, in a Monday Zoom meeting with lawmakers. 

“There is a time and place for disagreement,” the Des Moines mom said. “It should not come at the expense of my children and their education.”

Skuster was one of several parents and education lobbyists who objected to a set of bills moving through the Legislature on Monday.

Bills in both the House and the Senate included language which would, if passed, allocate additional money to some schools to offset the cost of in-person learning during the pandemic. However, both bills included sections that would provide less money to schools that disobeyed Gov. Kim Reynolds’ orders to reopen or which relied more heavily on remote learning.

Senate: No compliance = no additional funds

Senate Study Bill 1159 includes a “qualified instruction funding supplement” of $65 per pupil for the budget year beginning July 2021. The additional funding would go to every school except for those that did not comply with the state in-person learning requirements.

That means the Des Moines School District would not receive any additional funding under the bill. The extra $65 per student amounts to about $2 million, district officials have said.

The district sought court intervention after the Iowa Department of Public Health denied its request to start the year 100% online. The court did not override IDPH’s decision, but Des Moines students began the year remotely regardless, operating in defiance of state orders.

Skuster, the Des Moines mom, said it was “childish” to provide less funding to Des Moines schools due to the dispute.

“It’s cruel to not offer equitable funding for students at DMPS,” Skuster said.

Christopher Rants, a lobbyist for DMPS and a former state representative from Sioux City, said the district had been in compliance with state COVID-19 guidance since November. He asked lawmakers to amend the bill to include Des Moines schools.

“We have 30,000 students in the Des Moines Public School District. They have the same needs as every other student in any other district,” Rants said. “COVID doesn’t strike some school districts and not others.”

Sen. Amy Sinclair, R-Allerton, said the additional funding was meant to cover costs associated with in-person learning, such as cleaning the schools and providing transportation, rather than punishing the Des Moines Public School District.

“Their unwillingness to educate those 31,000 children … from August ‘til November left it so that they did not have those additional costs that other districts did,” Sinclair said. “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.”

Des Moines Public Schools and all other districts in Iowa must offer 100% in-person schooling options beginning Feb. 15. 

The Senate Education Committee moved the bill on Monday afternoon.

House: Additional allocation based on full, in-person teaching days

The House’s proposed bill takes a different approach to allocating additional COVID-19 funds. House Study Bill 184 would split an additional $30 million among schools based on the number of full, in-person learning days they offered between August and January. 

Unlike the Senate bill, the additional funding would be for the current school budget year.

The proposed legislation would apply more broadly than the Senate bill. Schools which offered a hybrid model, for instance, would count six hours of limited attendance, in-person instruction as a half day. 

Several Democrats on the House Education committee asked why the legislation would favor those schools which held in-person classes over those which legally offered remote or hybrid models.

“The bill only supports one of those models, even though school districts played by the rules that they were given with all three options,” Rep. Cindy Winckler, D-Davenport, said. “Why are we only supporting one model?”

Rep. Dustin Hite, R-New Sharon, responded that schools which offered more full-time in-person options incurred more costs than hybrid or remote options. The bill was meant to help cover those costs.

“It’s not about punishment, it’s not about reward, it’s simply about helping with those costs that those districts who were in person experienced,” Hite said.

The House Education Committee moved the bill Monday evening.

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Katie Akin
Katie Akin

Katie Akin is a former Iowa Capital Dispatch reporter. Katie began her career as an intern at PolitiFact, debunking viral fake news and fact-checking state and national politicians. She moved to Iowa in 2019 for a politics internship at the Des Moines Register, where she assisted with Iowa Caucus coverage, multimedia projects and the Register’s Iowa Poll. She became the Register’s retail reporter in early 2020, chronicling the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on Central Iowa’s restaurants and retailers.