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COLUMN: Iowa underfunding public education
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COLUMN: Iowa underfunding public education

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Scottish author Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832) was correct when he said, “Oh what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive.” The phrase may apply to Walt Rogers’ Oct. 6 op-ed in the Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier headlined “The truth about Iowa’s public education budget.”

Rogers, a former Republican legislator, is employed by the Tax Education Foundation of Iowa, founded by David Stanley (1928-2015), a Muscatine Republican who proudly declared his not-for-profit think tanks as “Iowa’s leading anti-tax group.” The essence of Rogers’ piece was Iowa’s GOP-controlled policymakers have given public school districts the bare minimum, and they don’t deserve a penny more. Taxpayers need to know that with Republicans taking dominion of the Capitol in 2011, their 1.7 percent average yearly increase in per pupil cost is the same as inflation (1.7 percent); no real gain for school districts.

I’m confident Iowa’s 327 public school board officials would testify their increased cost of insurance, buses and utilities — to name a few – are typically about double the 1.7 percent general inflation rate. To balance the budget, schools have been forced to reduce staff and instructional programs for eight consecutive years.

Rogers correctly states educational expenditures take up 55 percent of the General Fund. Alert to taxpayers: There’s more to the state budget than the General Fund. Education disbursements as a percentage of all state expenditures are 16.9 percent.

The national average is 19.5 percent; Iowa’s paltry investment in public education puts us behind Midwest states like North Dakota, Missouri, Minnesota and Kansas.

Iowa’s $11,150 per pupil spending allocation ranks 27th nationwide (U.S. Census Bureau). It’s sobering to know Iowa’s per pupil spending is superseded by West Virginia ($11,290) and followed closely by Louisiana ($11,038); awkward bedfellows.

Iowa ranks 22nd nationally in teacher pay. There’s good reason why neighboring states like Illinois (#11) and Minnesota (#12) are recruiting in Iowa to steal our best teachers and teachers-in-training. Margaret Buckton, Iowa School Finance Information Services, succinctly concludes, “public school districts can’t balance the budget by paying teachers and staff less while asking them to work harder and expect to have the quality workforce necessary to prepare Iowa’s future workforce for success.”

It’s ironic Rogers says “a better solution would be to find a more transparent and better way to spend existing dollars in education” while as a legislator he supported a $240 million private education funding bill (HF 9; school choice) where there’s no transparency for private or home schooled children’s attendance record or academic achievement.

Iowa’s fiscal year 2019 ended with a $289.3 million surplus. To bring our school districts’ financial wherewithal somewhat up to par, Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds should call a special session of the Legislature and allocate — as a conservative minimum — $80 million of the surplus to Iowa’s public schools, which would give districts an additional 2 percent to partially pay for the ever-increasing costs of property insurance, health care insurance and utilities.

Research is replete that an above-inflation and cost-of-living investment in public education lowers high school dropout rates, lowers teen pregnancy rates, increases post-secondary skill training, increases socio-economic growth and increases community prosperity. Likewise, inadequate educational funding produces high costs for society in terms of crime, health, economic growth and, for Iowa, a No. 27 nationwide ranking.

Don’t be hoodwinked by deceiving anti-tax anti-public education proponents. Iowa has the financial capability to do better, separate ourselves from the likes of Kansas, Missouri, Minnesota, North Dakota, West Virginia and Louisiana and restore our number one in the nation status.

Contact your legislators and governor and demand a special legislative session to increase public education funding, not with additional taxation, but with money that’s already in the bank.

Steve Corbin is an emeritus professor of marketing at the University of Northern Iowa and former Denver Board of Education board member. The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author, and do not reflect those of the University of Northern Iowa.

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