DES MOINES |Gov. Terry Branstad’s call to replace the current method of setting per-pupil funding increases for K-12 school districts has upped the uncertainty for administrators, teachers and school boards already trying to keep tabs of sweeping reform proposals likely to be considered when the 2013 Legislature convenes next month.
Under Iowa’s K-12 education forward-funding law, the Legislature was supposed to already have adopted an “allowable growth” rate to guide fiscal 2014 budget decisions in Iowa’s 348 school districts. However, that requirement went ignored last session as lawmakers transition to biennial budgeting, and since then Branstad has indicated he favors scrapping the allowable growth approach in favor of a new method that targets resources to public schools in ways that improve student achievement, not just provide more money.
Branstad and his aides say the governor’s education reform and funding recommendations will be spelled out when he submits his two-year budget proposal to lawmakers in January, but Democrats who control the Iowa Senate have expressed resistance to ending K-12 financing approach that has been in place since 1973 and school leaders say the uncertainty already has caused them to move back collective bargaining talks and put other decisions for the 2013-14 school year on hold.
“I think there’s a lot of stress,” said Dan Smith, executive director of the School Administrators of Iowa. “The last couple of years we’ve had either no allowable growth or very low allowable growth, and so the basic funding for schools has been very short, very small over the last couple of years.
“Then, add to that the uncertainty of not fixing allowable growth as is required in the law over a two-year period only adds more to that uncertainty,” he added. “All of the other expectations around collective bargaining and setting tax rates and all of those issues go forward, but one of the basic building blocks in terms of how you determine the resources you have available is uncertain, and so it creates a great deal of stress, no doubt about it.”
If the governor and split-control Legislature are unable to reach an agreement on “allowable growth” funding, the law requires that the issue default to zero percent for regular school aid and categorical funding. Preliminary estimates issued by the Legislative Services Agency indicate that a zero allowable growth for fiscal 2014 would keep per-pupil funding at $6,001 but still would require $6.5 million in state aid and $58.9 million in property tax revenue next fiscal year under the school foundation aid formula.
Setting allowable growth at 2 percent would cost $72.8 million in state aid and $48.4 million in property taxes to raise per-pupil funding to $6,121, while a 4 percent boost would require a $140 million increase in state aid and $49 million in local property taxes to hike per-pupil funding by $240 to $6,241, according to the LSA analysis.
Senate President Mike Gronstal, D-Council Bluffs, said it’s too early to say how education-related issues will unfold in the coming session, but his caucus believes local districts should determine the policies and make the decisions they think will best ensure a good education for their students
“Doing away with the allowable growth mechanism means we’re really kind of taking over how local schools are run, so I’d say we’ll certainly have some resistance to that, but the governor can choose to sign or veto or whatever he wants to do,” he said.
Rep. Ron Jorgensen, R-Sioux City, chairman of House Education Committee, said he hoped the Legislature and governor could resolve the K-12 funding level for fiscal 2014 early in the session so school districts have a better handle on their financial situations. He also said he favors revisiting the school aid formula but expected that would require the formulation of a study panel or task force to take an in-depth look at complicated issues that include transportation for rural schools, districts with declining or growing enrollments, budget guarantees and property tax equity.
“Whether we can accomplish this in this year’s session, I’m not sure. I want to do it right and I want to make sure that there’s enough people at the table to provide input and, if we would do the study this year and come back with proposed legislation next year, then that’s what maybe we should do,” Jorgensen said.