School funding fight abruptly ends legislative micro-honeymoon

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March 28, 2014 | 10:16 am

So our elected leaders in Des Moines are already on the brink of a serious slap fight over education funding. Sheesh, folks, there's still "Welcome Back" cake in the fridge.

Senate Democrats announced Thursday that they would be seeking a 4 percent increase in base funding for K-12 schools for the fiscal year beginning on July 1.

Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal, D-Council Bluffs, called the 4 percent “allowable growth” increase a “modest” boost that would translate into about $134 million in state aid from the general fund for the fiscal 2014 budgeting year. Majority Senate Democrats also propose taking $38.5 million from the state’s special taxpayer trust fund account to cover the property tax implications of a 4 percent boost in state aid — $16 million to cover the 12.5 percent property tax share under the school aid formula and another $22 million to address tax inequities between “property-rich” and “property-poor” school districts.

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House Speaker Kraig Paulsen, R-Hiawatha, said at first blush the 4 percent growth rate that Senate Democrats are proposing for K-12 schools in fiscal 2014 does not seem sustainable for future years.

"That's a lot of money," he told reporters. "That would be difficult to carry forward."

Earlier this week, Gov. Terry Branstad detailed a five-year, $187 million education reform proposal that would increase pay for new educators – from a minimum of $28,000 to a minimum of $35,000 in the next five years – and redo career paths for teachers previously approved in 2001 but never adequately funded. He hoped the changes would garner the respect the teaching profession deserves but he signaled that he expects lawmakers to approve the reforms before talks turn to education spending. To that end, he did not include any new money in his fiscal 2014 budget proposal to fund “allowable growth” for K-12 schools.

While taping Iowa Press today, Branstad repeated his reform-first position:

Governor Terry Branstad says lawmakers must first pass an education reform bill before he’ll consider how much money to spend on K-12 public schools.

“Back in 1992, when we led the nation on student achievement, 37 percent of our General Fund budget was going to preK-12 education. It’s now up to 43 percent and we’ve dropped from 1st in the nation to 25th, so obviously just spending more money is not the answer,” Branstad says. “We need to reform the system.”

From the standpoint of crafting a political strategy, Branstad's position makes sense. He's using the Democrats' desire to increase basic funding as leverage to get his reforms passed. Senators, of course, want money and see reform efforts as leverage. Very typical stuff.

But from a practical standpoint, the governor's argument has flaws.

The centerpiece of his reform effort, the new teacher leadership and compensation structure, or "career ladder," will take more than a year of planning to implement. After that, it would go into effect in roughly one-third of Iowa districts each year for three years. That's why it's full price tag, $160 million annually, isn't budgeted until year five.

So Branstad is insisting that lawmakers approve that new structure before approving basic school funding for this fall, even though that structure won't have any impact on schools until the fall of 2014, at the earliest.

So no matter what happens, or in what order, any school aid approved for this fall will go into the old system.

In Cedar Rapids, for example, state aid makes up 54 percent of its general fund revenues. And 85 percent of its general fund is spent on salaries, benefits, supplies and equipment.

So a lot of basic state school aid is spent on the nuts and bolts of running a school district.

And when a district is uncertain of how it will cover the rising cost of nuts and bolts, officials tend to look for other things to cut. It's possible that innovative programs and localized efforts to transform or reform education in schools around the state could be curtailed in an effort to cover basic expenses. Last year, for example, Cedar Rapids closed an academically successful school to shore up its reserves, in part, due to an uncertain state funding picture. And what innovations will schools decide not to try?

Those are the kinds of budget decisions school boards in Iowa will be making in the next 8 weeks if state funding for next school year remains a question mark. So it's possible that delaying a funding decision could actually be bad for innovation and reform. I'm not saying that 4 percent is perfect. Better to debate the right percentage than sit on zero for months.

I understand the governor wants reforms. Good for him. But I doubt a stalemate will be good for schools.

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