Editorial: Defend our schools | Editorials

Back when Iowa had a national reputation for being dedicated to education, state legislators made sure local teachers and school districts were well supported.

Over the first 38 years of the current state education funding formula, annual increases for K-12 schools have averaged 5%. That changed a decade ago when Terry Branstad and Kim Reynolds were elected. Since then, annual increases have averaged 1.9%.

We’ve seen the result: Iowa has shrunk relative to other states. Our statewide reputation as a place of excellence in education has suffered.

This year is not much different. Reynolds proposed a 2.5% increase in base state funding. And believe it or not, some Republicans argue that’s a strong commitment to K-12 education.

Not hardly. Not at a time when inflation is running at 7%. A member of the Bettendorf school board told us the other day that, in today’s atmosphere, a 5% raise should be the goal.

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Of course, that won’t happen. It’s even possible that the Republican-controlled legislature won’t grant Reynolds’ meager 2.5 percent request.

Advocates of this new greed like to brag that 56% of Iowa’s budget goes to education. But what they don’t tell you is that it also includes funding for universities, community colleges, grants for private tuition, and other programs.

What they also don’t tell you is that the 56% figure is only part of the money the state spends, not just the general fund. When the National Association of State Budget Officers released its latest report and included other state funds, bonds and federal money, spending on elementary and secondary schools in Iowa was 16.6% of the total budget for fiscal year 2021.

It’s quite a difference. Plus: Iowa doesn’t even meet the national average.

Is it any wonder we have trouble attracting people?

We are telling this sad story amid a new effort to drain even more money from public education.

The governor and Republicans in the Legislature are proposing a plan to create state-funded scholarships for people to go to private schools. These vouchers are available to those whose household income does not exceed 400% of poverty, or $106,000 per year for a family of four, as well as to students with disabilities and certain other individuals.

We fully support families attending the school of their choice, but this plan would take taxpayer dollars with them; withdraw this money from public schools and redirect it to private establishments, which do not operate according to the same rules.

It’s different from last year’s plan. Instead of targeting a number of public schools, the governor’s proposal threatens schools across the state. But understand this: Some schools in Iowa would be less at risk than others. Reynolds’ plan sets aside a sum of money for a number of public school districts to soften the financial blow.

Where are these selected schools?

They are not in the Quad-Cities. The list does not include Davenport or Bettendorf. It does not include North Scott or Pleasant Valley.

No, this kitty is reserved for schools with less than 500 students. Which means about one-third of the districts in the state. For the most part, these districts are located in rural areas.

Some people in rural Iowa say they fear their schools and communities will be affected by this plan. (The rural public school advocacy group is still against it.)

They are right to worry. Rural and urban school districts have all been hurt by the state’s chronic underfunding of K-12 education, and siphoning off even more money won’t help any of them. But we must ask ourselves: why should the damage to rural schools be mitigated and not to urban schools? It’s not as if urban districts don’t have their challenges too. In Davenport, student enrollment has been declining for years. Bettendorf’s listing is largely stable.

We can understand why rural lawmakers might like the extra help, even if it’s limited and will erode over time. But why would an urban legislator accept this plan? Why wouldn’t they demand that their school districts be given equal protection?

Democrats in the Legislature have already said they will oppose the plan. But since Republicans control state government, it’s really up to them to demand fairness.

We hope our representatives in the Legislative Assembly will stand up for the school districts in this region – and the majority of families who will rely on these schools even if this proposal passes. We also believe that voters should remind their representatives of this obligation.

We don’t mind using rural Iowa. The flow out of the state has hurt those parts of Iowa. But when it comes to stingy funding for K-12 schools, every district in Iowa, rural and urban, has suffered. The governor’s plan would make the situation even worse.

Quad-City lawmakers should remember who they represent in Des Moines. They should fight for the public schools in this area and make sure they are treated fairly. The families who send their children there deserve it.

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