DES MOINES — The state’s investment in Iowa’s K-12 public schools has been an annual point of contention among state lawmakers.
Since 2011, when Republicans gained at least partial control of the state lawmaking process (they now have complete control), they say they have made public education funding a priority.
Democrats see it differently; they say the GOP has woefully underfunded public schools.
The two sides also disagree over whether state funding has had an adverse impact on schools: Democrats say low funding levels have caused larger class sizes and forced districts to lay off staff, while Republicans point to data that suggest otherwise.
The dispute resumes today as the House debates setting the level of state funding for elementary and secondary schools for the next school year. Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds proposed a 1.5 percent increase, while legislators in both the House and Senate propose a 1 percent increase.
While Republicans determine which figure to settle on, Democrats say neither is adequate.
“I’m proud of the fact that when we’ve been tight in growth in these years, budget-wise. ... We’ve still been able to increase (school funding) at a commensurate level to the economy,” said Walt Rogers, a Republican state lawmaker from Cedar Falls who leads the House Education Committee. “I’m proud of it.”
Democrats and public school advocates argue inadequate funding already has had an adverse effect.
“Of course years of budget cuts have an impact,” said Jean Hessburg of the Iowa State Education Association, which represents more than 34,000 teachers across the state. “Talk to any parent in any part of the state and ask any parent if the budget cuts have had an impact in their school and their community, and they will tell you what they are seeing in their schools: absolutely budget cuts are having an impact in their schools.”
Both sides have data to support their arguments. Much of that data requires context to fully understand.
Republicans insist they have made public education a priority. They note K-12 school funding makes up more than 40 percent of the state budget, and they have approved annual funding increases despite holding some state agency budgets flat and cutting others.
Since Republicans took partial control in 2011, K-12 school funding has increased each year other than the first, resulting in nearly $713 million in new money, according to the state’s nonpartisan data agency.
Total state aid for K-12 public schools was more than $3.2 billion for the 2017-2018 school year.
“Gosh, that’s pretty good,” Rogers said. “So I feel good about those numbers. We’ve been able to increase it, at the same time being able to keep our budget in a good place overall.”
However, those funding increases have been lower than the state’s historical average. Since Republicans gained at least partial control at the Iowa Capitol, K-12 school funding has increased less than 3 percent in six of seven years. That happened only seven times in the previous 39 years, according to the state data agency.
And while that funding remains a large slice of the state budget pie, that slice has been shrinking under Republican control, from 45.8 percent in the year before they took partial control to 40.7 percent in the 2015-2016 school year, the most recent with available data.
“This will be the eighth straight year that we have historically underfunded schools,” said Rep. Sharon Steckman, D-Mason City, her party’s leader on the House Education Committee.
Democrats warned lower funding leads to teacher layoffs and results in larger class sizes, which studies show hurt student learning.
State education department data suggests that has not happened.
Democrats and public school advocates, however, say that data does not paint an accurate picture of the reality in classrooms.
The number of full-time teachers statewide increased each of the past six years, from the 2011-2012 to 2016-2017 school years, according to state data. The number of teachers increased 3 percent while enrollment over the same period increased 2.5 percent.
And the state’s average K-12 class size has remained steady, even fallen slightly: from 20.3 students per class in the 2013-2014 school year to 19.5 in 2016-2017.
But Democrats and public school advocates say the average class size figure is skewed by, for example, teachers in the state’s teacher leadership program, which takes teachers out of the classroom so they can mentor others. Those teachers are counted even though they are not always in the classroom teaching. More than 9,500 teachers participated in the program during the 2016-2017 school year, according to the state education department.
And while the overall average class size has remained steady, some grade-specific class sizes are larger and increasing.
For example, while the overall average class size in Iowa’s K-12 public schools is 19.5 students, the average class size in first and second grades is more than 20, and the average third-grade class is just shy of 22 students and increasing.
“That particular statistic is very skewed and is not accurate with what’s going on in the general education classroom,” Steckman said. “Those class sizes are up. You have kindergarten classes of almost 30 (students).”