By Dave Benson and Mary Meisterling
Our state legislators and the governor are sparring over whether or not to provide allowable growth for Iowa schools, how much to provide, and when is the right time to decide, because they are also considering significant education reform. Both the amount of funding and the timing of it are critical to the Cedar Rapids Community School District.
The Legislature is nearly one year late in setting the allowable growth rate for next school year. Schools need to know ASAP how much funding they will receive. Allowable growth is the amount of money per student the Legislature sets annually. The limitation serves as a ceiling on school budgets. Since the amount is per student, school districts with declining enrollment suffer reduced resources when allowable growth is low or zero.
This phenomenon has been especially painful for districts like ours in Cedar Rapids. The flood and corresponding drop in students following in the 2008-09 school year hit exactly at the time of record-low funding decisions from the state.
Allowable growth was designed to fund the incremental/inflationary cost increases. Ideally, allowable growth should be sufficient to maintain purchasing power of school districts relative to the economy. It hasn’t been sufficient in any of the last several years.
The costs of delivering education continue to grow. Staffing, insurance, transportation, technology, curriculum and other critical costs have gone up while school budgets have remained on a starvation diet for several years. If the Legislature doesn’t set an appropriate allowable growth, we will be forced to make deeper reductions to staffing and programming because other mandatory costs have escalated.
Our students deserve an education funded at least at the national average. Consider: In 1989, Iowa’s investment of per capita personal income in state and local government ranked 8th in the nation. We valued education and paid for it — as the largest expenditure of both state and local taxes. In 2010, Iowa’s ranking fell to 28th and has recently been as low as 33rd. We spend almost $1,000 less per student than the national average and the spending gap on both a dollar and percentage basis is growing.
Meanwhile, the Legislature and governor are debating education reform, which will take a long time to be defined and implemented. There is little or no money for schools in the earliest years of reform. Our school district will actively engage in reform with energy and hard work, wanting our system to best support the success of every student.
A quality assessment, teacher leadership including appropriate compensation for hard work with other teachers to improve instruction, and student learning considerations in educator evaluation are all critical to success. So are good online learning options and access to career and college readiness course work and Advanced Placement courses.
As the hard work of reform takes place at both the state and local level, however, we can’t continue to reduce teachers, leave positions unfilled and bar student access to good programs.
Legislators and Gov. Branstad, please approve 4 percent allowable growth quickly and put aside partisan politics in reforming our school system for the benefit of all Iowa’s students.
Dave Benson is superintendent and Mary Meisterling is president, board of education, for the Cedar Rapids Community School District. Comments: firstname.lastname@example.org or MMeisterling@cr.k12.ia.us