DES MOINES -- Many Iowa legislators and education advocates expect funding for public schools to be set early this session — with little to no increase.
They disagree on whether vouchers to increase school choice will get serious consideration.
State funding for public schools has seen only modest increases in recent years — 2.25 percent increases or less in seven of the last eight years — which many educators argue has stretched districts’ budgets thin.
But slower-than-expected tax collections make any large increase unlikely in the legislative session that begins Monday.
Still, lawmakers hope to shield schools from any cuts almost certain to come midyear because of projected fiscal 2018 shortfalls.
“With respect to K-12, it’s pretty hard for me to imagine how deep cuts in K-12 would support a growth environment,” Senate Majority Leader Bill Dix, R-Shell Rock, said in an interview. “Our employers count on students coming out of school prepared to go into the workplace or go on to higher education, and to underfund those efforts simply does make good sense for workforce development.”
Legislators expect to decide on state aid for schools early in the session. Last year, funding for schools — a 1.1 percent, $40 million, increase — was approved by both chambers in February.
“I expect them to do that again. I don’t have a problem with that,” said Rep. Mary Mascher, D-Iowa City, who serves on the House Education Committee. “It will just be set really low.”
Legislators and education advocates have different opinions on whether a school voucher or “education savings account” program will gain momentum.
The programs, which exist in 14 states and Washington, D.C., typically allow parents to use state dollars allocated to public schools on a per-pupil basis to pay for tuition at nonpublic schools.
Iowa Catholic Conference Executive Director Tom Chapman said legislators have shown the idea “general support.”
“We’re hoping to have something introduced, and we’ll have to see how far we can take that in the current (budgetary) environment,” Chapman said, adding a program could be implemented in phases, starting first at the kindergarten level. Giving the voucher the same value as per-pupil funds would make it “budget neutral,” he added.
But Rep. Art Staed, D-Cedar Rapids, called a voucher program “the death of public education” and said Republicans are making a “huge push” for a program this session.
Rep. Kirsten Running-Marquardt, another Democrat from Cedar Rapids, also sounded an alarm. “This is red flag, holy smoke, get organized now,” Running-Marquardt said.
But Mascher, a Democrat, said she doesn’t think there is enough support for the program.