Editorial: Iowa’s school-funding process is broken, illegal and short-sighted

Editorial: Iowa’s school-funding process is broken, illegal and short-sighted

Nothing is more important to Iowans than their children’s future. Nothing is more vital to the state’s economic health than quality schools. And nothing consumes more state tax dollars than Iowa’s K-12 education system.

And yet, year in and year out, our governor and our state lawmakers bungle the one critical aspect of education they control: funding.

By law, legislators each session are required to establish the growth rate of funding for schools within 30 days of the governor’s January presentation of his proposed state budget.

By law, that growth rate is supposed to be for not just the coming fiscal year, but also the year after.

Taken together, these two provisions of Iowa law are intended to give school districts 16 to 17 months to develop budgets tailored to the needs of their students.

MORE: 8 things to know about Iowa school funding

Unfortunately, lawmakers didn’t comply with those laws, either last year or this year. To hear them tell it, their failure to obey laws of their own making is not due to indifference or ignorance. They’re simply not up to the job. They’re incapable of performing a task they deemed so important it had to be codified in state law.

But state lawmakers aren’t entirely to blame for Iowa’s dysfunctional school-funding process. Gov. Terry Branstad has demonstrated a remarkable lack of leadership on this issue, repeatedly declaring some sort of abstract “support” for Iowa schools while simultaneously refusing to fund them at an adequate level.

In fact, the 2015 legislative session stands as a textbook example of fiscal mismanagement by both the governor and the Legislature. After remaining in session five weeks beyond their scheduled date of adjournment, Democrats and Republicans agreed to an education budget that would have provided the schools with a 1.25 percent increase in state aid, plus $55.7 million in one-time funding for the 2015-16 school year.

The bill was approved and sent to Branstad, who wasted no time vetoing the $55.7 million appropriation arguing that he was opposed to using one-time funding sources to pay for ongoing expenses. Republican lawmakers either didn’t know their party leader would veto the measure, or they had deliberately negotiated in bad faith.

In any event, the governor’s rationale for the veto was fiction. In the past, he hasn’t hesitated to use one-time sources of funding to pay for his own priorities, such as commercial property-tax cuts. More important, though, the bill sent to Branstad’s desk effectively prohibited use of the $55.7 million for ongoing expenses. The money could have been used only to supplement, not supplant, money in school district accounts.

Now more than 150 Iowa school districts say they are underfunded. Some school leaders have talked of suing the state. Others are openly violating the law that restricts school spending to levels established by the state. Democrats feel sucker-punched by their Republican colleagues. And the governor? Well, so far, he’s still tap dancing.

He says he doesn’t want to simply “throw money” at the schools, implying that, despite all evidence to the contrary, they’re behaving in a more fiscally irresponsible manner than the state. He promises to make his school-funding recommendations to the General Assembly in January, as required by law, and says he is “hopeful” lawmakers will agree on education funding soon after.

That’s the same failed strategy that contributed to this year’s debacle. On too many issues, such as education, Medicaid privatization, the closing of the Iowa Juvenile Home and the shutdown of the two mental health institutes, Branstad doesn’t enlist the support of members of his own party. He also ignores stakeholders, ensuring that no matter what path he takes, few will be working to ensure his plans succeed. He says he is a leader, but seems blissfully unaware that no one is following.

The 2016 legislative session is just 10 weeks away. The governor should begin meeting now with school superintendents and legislative leaders to not only share his ideas for the coming session, but also to hear their concerns.

And come January, lawmakers should resist the urge to focus on any legislation — such as the proposed expansion of gun rights and the legalization of fireworks — until education funding is settled. After all, on Day One of the session, legislators will already be in violation of the law that requires funding levels for the 2016-17 school year to have been established by February 2015.

It’s time for our legislators and our governor to comply with the law, live up to their promises and begin treating Iowa’s children as their top priority.

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