Historically poor commitment to schools

The only “historic” note in the latest school-aid deal is the defiance of Iowa’s tradition of commitment to education.

To put the House-Senate agreement on school aid in perspective, take a step back for a better view.

The legislative agreement is for 2.3 percent Supplemental State Aid (SSA), or growth in the per-pupil spending figure that Iowa school districts use to build their budgets, which are based on enrollment.

As the graph below shows, for the decade of FY2002 through FY2011, that per-pupil figure fluctuated some but rose by an average of 3.1 percent per year (shaded area, left side of graph).

For the next decade, from FY2012 to the FY2021 SSA agreed to this week, the plan will provide average growth of only 1.8 percent per year (shaded area, right side of graph).

Iowa’s commitment to public education in the 10 years from 2002 to 2011 stands in stark contrast to that of the most recent 10 years.
Notably, that earlier period provided more sustainable funding despite the deepest recession in the United States since the 1930s.Also notably, one reason for that was the state’s wise decision to use one-time funding from the federal Recovery Act — known to many as “stimulus” — to hold schools harmless as much as possible, bridging the recessionary gaps in revenues that would have forced slower growth or even cuts in per-pupil funding.

The contrast in SSA over time puts in perspective the political chatter around school funding from those who have held education lower than what is necessary for schools to keep up with costs, let alone to tap students’ potential to reach for greater achievement.

As for “historic” levels of funding — of course even a $1 increase provides a new record. You don’t have to see an actual cut to know you are being underfunded. If growth isn’t enough to keep up with costs, and it has not been for many years now, the only “historic” note is the defiance of Iowa’s tradition of commitment to education.
Mike Owen is executive director of the nonpartisan Iowa Policy Project in Iowa City. He served on the West Branch Community School Board from 2006-2017.
mikeowen@iowapolicyproject.org

Unspoken budget choices for Iowa

In perspective, “tax coupling“ must be seen as a budget choice, stacked up against other ways to use nearly $100 million.

DSCN5662-detail240200There’s a reason we can’t have the things we need. We keep giving money away, often without a good understanding of why we’re doing it.

A good example is the so-called “coupling” legislation now moving through the Iowa Legislature. It would do some sensible things, but others — not so much, and not for the reasons being promoted. Read more about it in this Iowa Fiscal Partnership policy brief.

Most of the cost of the coupling bill is for a business tax break. The Farm Bureau recently quoted one of its local leaders, Washington County Farm Bureau vice president Tye Rinner, that this provision is “really important to us right now.”

“We’re all in limbo right now waiting to see what’s going to happen and that’s keeping us from making the investments in equipment, buildings and other capital purchases, which would also create jobs in our rural communities,” Rinner was quoted.

Unfortunately, that message has little to do with the legislation under consideration. What is missed is that the bill at the Statehouse would make changes for only one tax year — and it’s one already past. The changes are retroactive to tax year 2015.

So if farmers or other business people wanted to make a capital investment that would benefit from the kind of tax provisions being proposed, they would not get the break. They’d be too late.

On the other hand, the bill would reward decisions already made. It’s not an incentive to do something they would not have done anyway — and it’s very costly. It’s about $98 million that was not in the budget for the current year, and would hit the ending balance.

In perspective, this must be seen as a budget choice, put up against other ways to use that $98 million, which would go against the resources on hand for the new fiscal year. You might have noted the difference between the House and Senate on a school aid number is 2 percent in supplemental state aid, whether to set per-pupil cost growth at 2 percent or 4 percent. The difference is about $85 million, according to the Iowa Association of School Boards.

So as you can see, we can subsidize business people to do something they already did without a subsidy, or for less money we can have a 4 percent increase in school aid. The House speaker says we can afford the first choice, but not the second. Both positions cannot be so.

2010-PFw5464Posted by Peter S. Fisher, Research Director for the Iowa Policy Project.
Contact: pfisher@iowapolicyproject.org