Some of today’s elementary and high school students will be serving in our state legislature 25 years from now, hopefully drafting and passing laws for the betterment of all Iowans. They will need the critical thinking skills and positive life experiences that come from nurturing families and a solid education. Why, then, are we permitting today’s legislators and our governor, Terry Branstad, to shortchange the education of Iowa children in public and nonpublic schools?
A divided legislature got bogged down on the issue of a funding increase for Iowa’s public schools and didn’t wrap up the legislative session until early June because of it. School districts throughout the state were understandably frustrated in their efforts to try to pass budgets without knowing what kind of funding to anticipate. By the way, state law requires approval of public school funding a year and a half in advance of the school year.
Our state spends nearly $3 billion on K-12 education from the general fund, according to the Iowa Catholic Conference, the public policy voice of Iowa’s bishops. Republicans had proposed about a $100 million increase and the Democrats proposed a $210 million increase. Legislators plugged their noses and ultimately agreed to 1.5 percent allowable growth (about $50 million from the general fund) and one-time supplemental funding of $55.7 million from the state’s savings account. While both sides knew the compromise wasn’t ideal, they were surprised when Gov. Branstad vetoed the supplemental funding.
“By using one-time money and not providing supplemental state aid for the second fiscal year, the legislature compounded the uncertainty that school districts faced this entire legislative session,” the governor said in his July 2 veto message. The Iowa Senate’s leadership responded by calling for a special session for the purpose of overriding the governor’s vetoes on funding for education and mental health services.
Convening a special session, however, would be “very unlikely,” says the Iowa Catholic Conference’s Executive Director Tom Chapman. “There’s been such a dispute over the funding issue. Republicans wouldn’t want to override the governor,” he conjectures.
The governor may have a point when it comes to pointing fingers. Legislators should address education funding in a way that puts students first, not politicians. Iowa school children should not have to pay the price for the intransigence of adults focused on the short-term. We commend Davenport Schools Superintendent Art Tate for his willingness to sacrifice on behalf of that city’s students. He’s vowed to spend money in reserves that’s off-limits, according to Iowa law. He’s willing to risk penalties for himself.
Our state’s bishops support a healthy public school system, one that works collaboratively with non-public schools. After all, approximately 45,000 Catholic children attend Iowa’s public schools while approximately 29,000 students — Catholics and non-Catholics — attend Catholic elementary and high schools. (We’ve extrapolated these statistics from The Official Catholic Directory 2015.)
Chapman notes that, in the final analysis, the months-long fight over public school funding made it impossible for legislators to address support for nonpublic school students. Catholic Social Teaching observes that the achievement of a healthy community requires us to meet our responsibilities, one of those being the education of our society’s children. As people of faith, we have duties and responsibilities to one another, to our families and the larger society.
We recommend that you contact your state senators and representatives and tell them how you feel about the issue of education funding for our kids (go to www.legis.iowa.gov). Encourage them to return to special session to override the governor’s veto; encourage them to have the political courage to obey the law when it comes to addressing deadlines for funding our state’s schools. If we want effective legislators for the future, we need to advocate for their educational needs today.