DES MOINES — A looming political skirmish over the funding of K-12 education in Iowa might be the harbinger of bigger battles yet to come.
Disagreement between Republican forces led by Gov. Terry Branstad and Democrat lawmakers in concert with education interests likely will come to a head this week when faced with a deadline on education funding.
State law requires the governor and lawmakers to establish the “allowable growth” level for school districts’ per-pupil spending authority for the school year nearly 18 months out.
They are required to set that level within 30 days of receiving the governor’s budget proposal, and that deadline is Thursday.
It’s an important decision because school aid makes up about 60 percent of the state budget, and school districts rely on that aid for a substantial part of their yearly funding.
Branstad appeared to up the ante on Friday when he told reporters he wants to scrap the system he championed in the 1990s and redo the state’s foundation aid formula.
“I think we need to get away from the old way that we’ve done things,” Branstad said. “The system needs to focus on things that are going to get us results.”
Specifics of how that would happen could come from a task force that is to be headed by Iowa Department of Education Director Jason Glass.
In the meantime, legislative Democrats, who hold a 26-24 majority in the Senate, say they will approve a 4 percent increase for base per-pupil and categorical spending on Tuesday.
If signed into law, that would commit the state to increase its aid by $142.6 million for the school year beginning July 1, 2013, and to raise categorical funding for programs like class-size reduction and professional development by $14.6 million.
Republicans, who hold a 60-40 edge in the House, are taking a different tact by moving a bill through the House Education Committee that would move the allowable growth decision to odd-numbered years and to require that the level be set for two schools years at a time.
The effect would be to push the next school funding decision into the 2013 session.
That idea was met with skepticism by representatives of school administrators, school boards and teachers last week.
They worried they would face a tight timeline in the 2013-14 school year to make funding, contract and classroom decisions in an atmosphere of uncertainty already whipped up by talk of education reform.
“We think the two-year-out cycle has worked very well,” said Emily Piper, a lobbyist representing the Iowa Association of School Boards.
Dan Smith of the School Administrators of Iowa said the current law was established so decisions could be made in a more measured and purposeful way. School officials prefer to know what level of spending authority they can expect with at least a full year of advanced notice.
But Rep. Jeremy Taylor, R-Sioux City, said the message he hears most from his local educators is they don’t want to see the state over-promise and under-deliver, which has been the case when the Legislature has had to reduce state aid after the advance funding level was set.
Anita Micich, superintendent of schools in Mason City and Clear Lake, said districts need predictability in their budgets.
She said school districts already have made significant cuts in recent years and “we can’t do it on the cheap any more” if policy makers expect to see the changes that are needed to promote innovation in the classroom.
Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal, D-Council Bluffs, said it is unlikely Senate Democrats will go along with Branstad’s call to repeal the forward-funding law.
He said he planned to take up the allowable growth issue on Tuesday and send to the House a 4 percent increase for the 2013-14 school year.
“They may choose to break the law. We won’t,” he said.