In the Feb. 5, 2021, issue of the Summit-Tribune I wrote a piece titled: "Why is public education no longer a priority in Iowa?" I suggested that the motto on the Iowa state quarter, "Foundation in Education," established in 2004, no longer told it like it is.
The 2021 legislative session had then only recently begun and in her Condition of the State address, Gov. Kim Reynolds had proposed what she called a "historic" investment in K-12 education. I suggested the only thing "historic" about her proposals was defiance of Iowa's commitment to public education.
State supplemental aid (SSA), the amount of new money available to schools, grew an average of 3.27% annually between 2000 and 2010, but has dropped to an average of 1.73% annually per year since then. That's less than inflation, which rose 1.81% on average from 2011 to 2018.
So the stark reality was that our support of public education from 2010 to 2020 did not even keep pace with the rate of inflation. And when you couple that with a 3% to 5% increase in operational costs in the average Iowa school, we are actually moving backwards.
You may remember that going back a number of years we were proud that Iowa was in the very top tier of states when they were ranked for public education. Well, there's a reason that no one talks about those kinds of things anymore. In the rankings I have been able to find recently, Iowa seems to be in the "also ran" category.
So now we fast forward to July with the legislative session having concluded in mid-May. How did public education fare? Not very well.
State supplemental aid increased to 2.4% for the coming academic year. Since the budget is based on the fall 2020 enrollment, down nearly 6,000 students due to the pandemic, this paltry 2.4% increase per pupil is actually a reduction for many school districts and only cost the state about a quarter of their usual $95 million annual increase for public schools.
So we keep slipping backwards as most school leaders believe it would take an increase of at least 4% to meet the existing needs of schools. A budget increase that fails to keep pace with costs is a cut in real terms. Our school districts will be forced to make cuts in the coming year as state funding continues to lag behind rising costs.
The state has a combined budget surplus and rainy day fund that totals nearly $1 billion. What better place is there to spend some of this money than on the education of our young people, our most valuable asset?
After the legislation passed this year, it is no longer clear what providing an education means. It seems that anything goes here. Our governor bragged that "historic" legislation had been enacted that would expand the state's charter school system.
Charter schools are private entities that receive public money but are not accountable to school boards. They can seek waivers to be exempted from some state educational standards. Children who attend charter schools will take with them almost $8,000 in taxpayer dollars. That is money that would have gone to traditional public schools.
Our governor and the Republican legislature have been waging a long-standing campaign to funnel tax dollars to private schools and home-schoolers. They want government-subsidized choice without government oversight or regulation.
How can we justify more funding for charter, private and religious schools and homeschooling when public education is underfunded? I am not opposed to any of these non-public school options, but they should not be paid for with taxpayer money.
I have a hard time believing that the ongoing efforts by the governor and Republican state representatives and senators to flow public dollars into private schools really represents the will of the people in a state where the vast majority of people attend public schools. Polls have shown that more Iowans oppose than favor public funding for private schools or homeschooling.
Gov. Reynolds has stated: "Our children are our greatest asset and we have to do everything possible to set them up for success." Sounds good, but her actions tell a far different story.
Many of you would know that I am an advocate for young people and giving them the best education we can. I wish I could tell you that I think we are doing that.
Raymond Beebe served as a vice president for Winnebago Industries Inc., for 38 years. He's currently president of the Forest City Education Foundation.