Beebe: Underfunding of public education in Iowa, why?

[Globe Gazette] Beebe: Underfunding of public education in Iowa, why?

When the U.S. Mint asked each state to pick an image to represent the state on a series of special quarters in 2004, Iowa chose its schools. The quarter featured a likeness of Grant Wood's famous painting of a one-room country school with a message "Foundation in Education." That choice was not surprising as our schools had been something in which Iowans had for a long time taken great pride. Our chests swelled each time Iowa stood atop the nation's college entrance exam rankings or other categories. THAT WAS THEN!

I submit to you that public education is no longer a priority in Iowa and has not been for several years. Governor Reynolds would have you believe otherwise as she has stated: "The state's significant and responsible funding increases year over year for more than a decade help ensure that Iowa has the strong public education system necessary to support the success of our students and our state." She has also stated that our children are our greatest asset and that we have to do everything we can to prepare them for success.

So let's look at the facts. State supplemental aid (SSA), the amount of new money available to schools, grew an average of 3.27% annually between 2000 and 2010. However, it 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. While the SSA increased modestly this year to 2.5%, we need to look at that in the context of 7% to 8% inflation in 2021 and 2022.

Most Iowa schools are being forced to make cuts as state funding for K-12 education continues to lag behind rising costs. When money is tight, of course we tighten the belt. But money isn't tight. Iowa currently has a surplus of nearly $2 billion. If we believe public education is valuable and important – and 97% of Iowans with school aged children ought to - that's the percentage who attend public schools - we need to fund it. Funding and respect are inextricable. When we choose to fund schools, we voice respect for public education; we respect teachers as professionals and experts in the field of teaching and learning and we honor the youth of our community enough to supply them with the resources and people they need to succeed.

Shouldn't we want to bring Iowa back to its position as a top state for public education, an accolade that has slipped in recent years? In the most recent U.S. News and World Report state education rankings, Iowa placed 24th. World Population Review put Iowa at No. 13 and Wallet Hub at No. 19. We know at once that's not where we belong and that's not what our children deserve. In the 1990s, Iowa was ranked in the top five and just about every comparison of reading and math scores on the National Assessment of Education Progress test. But the most recent NAEP data shows that by 2019 Iowa fell to the middle of the pack. Newsweek published a list of the top 20 state's pay for public elementary and secondary school teachers. Iowa is not on that list. Iowa ranks an unimpressive 29th in the nation in the category of spending per student in public schools.

If the governor truly believes that our children are our greatest asset and that we have to do everything we can to prepare them for success, why doesn't she lead the charge to take at least $300 million from the Iowa budget surplus to be used for education and to compensate for the funding deficits? This brings up another point. The corporate income tax reduction championed by the governor and the Republican legislature cost the state about $300 million. Shouldn't we invest more money in education and our young people rather than pursue reductions in the state corporate income tax?

The budget cuts that individual school districts have to impose due to lack of state funding has caused them to get rid of full-time teaching positions and integral enrichment programs and lessen first-year teacher pay. Public education has been defunded for many years by giving budget increases that do not keep up with inflation – not to mention the additional challenges and expenses of the pandemic.

To add insult to injury, Governor Reynolds and most of the Republican Legislature have been pushing a funding bill to direct taxpayer money meant for public education to pay for Reynolds' "Student First Scholarship Program." It would fund $55 million of taxpayer money to the scholarship program. The program awards scholarships to students who want to attend private schools. They want government subsidized choice without government oversight or regulation. How can we justify funding for charter, private, and religious schools when public education is underfunded? Also, vast areas of rural Iowa, including our area, are without any private schools that could use the scholarships leading to fears that rural districts would lose students and the public funding that comes along with them.

When the proposal failed to pass in the Iowa house, a number of moderate Republicans voted with Democrats to defeat it. But should Governor Reynolds be elected to another term, she has made it clear that she will again seek approval of the voucher proposal in 2023. She has tried to "punish" the moderate Republicans who voted against the proposal and in a number of instances she found/supported primary opponents to the Republican representatives who did not "tow the line." Reynolds definitely doesn't like it when she does not get her way. I could go on and on about how Governor Reynolds and her allies have not been supportive of our public schools and our public universities but length restrictions prevent me from doing so.

Henry Stone, our current Republican District 9 State Representative is seeking re-election on Nov. 8. He is what I would call a far-right conservative who almost always dutifully follows the Governor's agenda. Thus, in my opinion, he is not supportive of public education and he supports the voucher proposal in spite of the fact that it will be no real benefit to his constituency. On the other hand, his Democratic opponent, Joe Tillman, a retired teacher, is very pro public education. He clearly understands that young people are our most valuable asset and he will vote accordingly. I urge you to support Mr. Tillman in the forthcoming election.

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