January 31, 2014

Iowa Democrats introduced legislation in the State Senate this week to increase state funding of education 6 percent per pupil in the 2015-16 school year.

If passed, the education funding increase would total about $220 million. The amount districts receive per pupil, currently $6,121, would increase to about $6,748.

According to Mike Cormack, policy liaison for the State Department of Education, the Legislature is supposed to address education funding each session within the first 30 days and determine funding two years out. It missed this mark in 2012, when members did not decide on a figure.

Last year, in the 2013 session, the Legislature set the education spending for the 2013-14 school year and the 2014-15 school year using a "2+2 formula" - a 2 percent increase in supplemental state aid, formerly known as allowable growth, plus an additional one-time 2 percent bonus, for a total 4 percent rise in state education funding per pupil for the 2013-14 school year.

Supporters of the legislation argue that schools need a specific number from the Legislature in order to properly plan their budgets.

Rep. Daniel Muhlbauer, D-Manilla, said he supports his party's proposal in the state Senate and that a similar bill is waiting in the House.

"We talk about our schools not keeping pace - we are now $1,500 per student behind," he said, questioning whether the House majority party would bring the bill to the floor. "Even if they don't like 6 percent, they need to propose something."

Legislators opposing the bill argue that the decision should be made after they know what state revenues will be in a given year.

Sen. Mark Segebart, R-Vail, is among these voices. Iowa currently has a budget surplus of about $800,000, but a 6 percent increase could burn through all of those funds in less than four years, he said.

"I'm all about sustainable budgets, and if we make a commitment to the schools, we'd better make good on it," he said.

Though he didn't say he would vote the bill down, Segebart said he preferred the existing 4 percent increase.

"I want to make sure, whatever it is, that we fulfill our commitment and not have to cut back things set in stone with schools as far as what their spending and salaries will be," he added.

The current legislative session kicked off Jan. 13, giving legislators until mid-February to determine the 2015-16 school year education funding. The law setting the two-year rule was passed in the late 1990s, said Cormack, but there are no punishments if legislators do not adhere to this deadline.

"There is irony on both sides," he said. "At the time, Republicans were pushing for two-year budgets. Now, for whatever reason, the tables have almost turned. I can't think of any law where the sides have switched that much."

Cormack said the Department of Education remains neutral in debates on state funding amounts, leaving that decision to the Legislature.

But even if the 6 percent increase is passed, Cormack said, this funding will not be enough to offset the effects of declining enrollment, particularly among rural districts.