Inside the Iowa House: More School Closings on the Way?
My mother had taught in country schools and was dead set against me attending one. She had been barely older than her students, was out in the country with a group of children, had no phone, no car, and limited access if there had been any type of emergency.
That's why she insisted her own children received an education in town and I went to the Weldon School, which later became Clark Community Schools in southern Iowa. The country school my mother taught at closed down while I was in school and the school building that I went to has also closed its doors as well. Each generation has gone through downsizing and public school closures.
When I joined the legislature over a decade ago, there were about 375 school districts in Iowa and today that number today is 333. We just learned this month that the consolidation trend continues and 105 public school buildings have closed their doors for good in the last eight years alone.
We all know it's devastating for small towns to lose their only school. It makes luring new jobs and new families to their community even more difficult. Unfortunately, the situation is going to keep getting worse if we don't address the long-term issue of school funding soon.
Over the last eight years, the state's investment in public schools has been the lowest in Iowa history. When adjusted for inflation, schools have received less than a 1% increase each year and next year will be just as bad after the Governor and Republican lawmakers who control the Statehouse approved a 1% increase last week. The net effect is Iowa's per pupil funding is now $1,111 below the national average.
It's a small increase for kids in our public schools and it's barely enough for schools to keep up with rising costs let alone create new opportunities. It means more schools will be closed, class sizes will continue to increase, some teachers will lose their jobs, and critical technology purchases will be delayed yet again.
So how did we get in to this endless cycle of chronic low funding for public schools?
It's really a consequence of the Governor and Republican leaders' mismanagement of the state budget as well as hundreds of millions in corporate tax giveaways handed out before the state had money to pay for them. More than anything else, those giveaways have forced mid-year budget cuts, low-funding for schools, and more state debt. Don't forget state revenues have actually been increasing, just not enough to pay for all the corporate tax giveaways.
While anemic state investment is the biggest challenge our public schools face, the Governor and Republican leaders are working on a new voucher plan that will make the situation even worse for public schools.
Their plan will shift millions from public schools to homeschools and private schools instead. When fully implemented, a voucher program in Iowa would cost over $200 million annually and would put a huge burden on the already stretched budgets of our public schools.
While the active homeschool and private school lobbying groups call the voucher bills "school choice" or "education savings accounts," the reality is Iowa families already have many choices when it comes to their child's education. There are currently six different options available, including: local public school; open enrollment to another public school; private school; online public school; homeschool with assistance from local schools; and finally "independent private" instruction with no additional help from public schools and with zero state requirements.
It's important to note that the state already provides over $54 million in public tax dollars for private schools and homeschool assistance. That includes millions in tax credits to private and corporate donors that get state tax incentives for donations to tuition scholarships at private schools and homeschools. Iowa's publicly funded Area Education Agencies (AEA) also provide support to private schools for special education programs, health services, services for remedial education programs, guidance services, and school testing services.
Between chronic low state funding and a new voucher plan, Republican leaders at the State Capitol have set the stage for another round of school closures and consolidations. While it will hit rural areas especially hard, their plan also means trouble for schools districts with booming enrollment. Across the board, it means public schools will be forced to raise class sizes and reduce opportunities for kids.
There's no question we face significant challenges in education today. The need for Iowa's children to have a world class education has never been higher. Our young people are competing with students from around the globe today and require learning more than one language, having exceptional math and science skills, keeping up with rapid changes in technology, and communicating effectively through various modes.
We're at another crossroads for Iowa public schools that come along once in a generation. I believe we have to do better. It's time to invest in our public schools and make them the best in the country again.