State Senator Amy Sinclair, R-Allerton, during floor debate in 2019.
Photo Credit: Iowa Senate Republicans

DES MOINES, Iowa The Iowa Senate and Iowa House passed a K-12 education funding bill that raised the state supplemental aid for public schools by 2.3 percent. 

The Republican leadership of both chambers agreed on K-12 education funding on Tuesday. The House initially passed an appropriations bill increasing SSA by 2.5 percent; the Senate passed a 2.1 percent increase.

The Senate passed the bill by a 31 to 17 party-line vote on Wednesday afternoon, and the House passed the Senate bill by a 51 to 46 party-line vote. 

Under the agreement, Republicans also increased funding for rural transportation by $7.65 million and per pupil equity by $5.8 million. In total, the Iowa Legislature passed a $99.2 million spending increase for K-12 education. 

During the Senate debate, Democrats complained that the bill wasn’t passed fast enough and did not offer enough money.

“(S)tate law currently states that we have to have this done before now. It’s now about 20 days late. Republicans control the House, the Senate and the governor’s office. And I just wondered, you know, what took so long to come to an obvious agreement of 2.3 percent, which was dead center in the middle?” State Senator Claire Celsi, D-West Des Moines, asked State Senator Amy Sinclair, R-Allerton, who was managing the bill during the Senate debate. 

“We could certainly not run the amendment which provides for notwithstanding language to not withstand those 30 days that you mentioned. But then that means that that by statute, the increase in supplemental state aid would be zero Senator and I don’t think any of us in this chamber would like that. As far as the process by the time link, there was a negotiation process, 2.3 was offered, and we were waiting for a response,” Sinclair answered. 

State Senator Herman Quirmbach, D-Ames, also complained about the timing and said Republicans broke their promise.

“The promise here is to do the allowable growth in time for our school boards and our school superintendents to do their budget work for the coming school year. The school year that starts this July 1 and every day that goes by, gives them one less day to make astute, responsible, wise decisions about how to spend their money and how to organize their budget,” he said. “Their budget has to be approved, I believe by the middle of April, and there are various public hearing and other requirements, other hoops to jump through along the way. So every day of the three weeks delay of the three weeks’ broken promise has put them in that much more difficult position to do what they need to do to responsibly spend the taxpayer dollars and educate our kids.”

Quirmbach also reminded the body that a law passed under the Branstad administration required the Iowa Legislature to pass education funding one year in advance, so the bill the Senate was debating should be for the 2021-2022 school year. 

He also complained about the amount of funding.

“The amount proposed here, whether it’s 2.1, or 2.3, or 2.5, would not be sufficient to make up for losses due to inflation. Over the four year period, we’re already more than 2.1 percent behind inflation. And with inflation running at about 2.3, it would take us between four and 4.5 percent, not 2.3 percent to end the four year period, even staying even with inflation,” Quirmbach added.

He discussed the ACT college readiness report for Iowa students adding that it would take additional money to ensure students were ready for college and STEM programs in particular. 

State Senator Jackie Smith, D-Sioux City, complained about collective bargaining reform passed by the Iowa Legislature and signed into law by former Governor Terry Branstad in 2017. Something that, some Republicans argued, made local control in school spending possible

“We’re going to have a teacher shortage. Since you all got collective bargaining, my schools tell me that they’re not retaining teachers at the rate that they were. They’re not recruiting teachers like they were,” she said. 

“This will further add to low wages, or at least not increasing like they should,” Smith added.

Celsi spoke again, concurring with Quirmbach’s concerns about college readiness and then pointed to the funding amount. 

“So as some of the former speakers have alluded to, what do we have? We have larger class sizes, fewer options for electives, fewer mental health professionals in our classrooms, teacher shortages, and lowering we’re starting to lower standards for teacher qualifications as well, which has always been a hallmark in Iowa of our teacher qualifications being the best. I can see that slipping already. 2.3 is not enough folks, not enough at all,” she stated.

State Senator Robert Hogg, D-Cedar Rapids, accused Governor Kim Reynolds of weak leadership. 

“Am I the only person in this building who is just shocked at what a weak leader Governor Reynolds is that she can’t even get a Republican majority to go along with a 2.5 percent increase?” he asked, saying they elected a spokesperson, not a governor.

“Back for those of you who weren’t here when Tom Vilsack was governor when Chet Culver was governor, they insisted on getting things done that were priorities,” Hogg added.

“Well, my bottom line is Governor Reynolds is weak. The Republican majorities, even weaker, don’t really care about public schools,” he said.

State Senator Chris Cournoyer, R-LeClaire, a former school board member who defended the bill, said the 2.3 percent increase in SSA is something schools can count on.

“So the fact that we are getting the number, and it’s a number that we can count on, not a number that is given to us that is higher than it should be that it’s not going to be fulfilled later on. It’s a number that we can count on. So when I talked to superintendents, and I tell them, it’s going to be 2.3. I get thank yous because they know that it is a number that they can count on. And it’s a number that they can take to their school board on Monday night so that they can get their budget process approved and on the road and start negotiating contracts,” she said.

Cournoyer said that she remembers having to wait until June because legislators used the SSA as a political football for other priorities.

“So I applaud our efforts to find a number that we are going to be able to fulfill, not a number that we’re going to have to backtrack on later. And that we can give it give it to them early enough that school districts across the state, all 327 of them can count on this number when they are fulfilling their promises to our students,” she added.

Cournoyer also rebuked Senate Democrats. 

“And if you think we’re failing our students, you haven’t been in one of our schools lately, because there are great things going on all over this state in all of our school districts. We are funding iJAG; we are funding the teacher leadership program. We’re funding STEM programs; there are good things going on in our public schools right now. And for someone to say that we’re failing our kids, they’re being quite disingenuous,” she said.

In her closing statement on the bill, Sinclair also blasted Democrats who spoke during the debate.

“I have to say this is perhaps the most confusing debate I’ve ever experienced. I heard that our budget has a surplus surplus… from Senator Quirmbach. And then I heard that we’re facing a recession and probably can’t even live up to the 2.3 from Senator Dotzler, so I’m not sure, that’s confusing to me,” she said.

“I heard from Senator Quirmbach and Senator Celsi that our teachers are doing a terrible job in preparing our kids because they can’t even get good grades on the ACT. But I heard from Senator Smith that our teachers are perfect and that we just destroyed their opportunities with collective bargaining. I don’t know if it’s money or teachers or poverty or parenting. I don’t know if it’s STEM. This has been the most confusing debate I’ve ever had the pleasure of experiencing,” Sinclair added.

She pointed out the Democrats’ history of overpromising on education funds and then underdelivering. Referring to when former Democratic Governor Chet Culver had to cut spending by 10 percent across the board due to a revenue shortage. Sinclair said Democrats “dug a ditch, a $459 million ditch.”

Sinclair said Republicans were working on solutions to problems schools said they faced. 

“When I first came to the Education Committee, we were talking about equity. We were talking about transportation equity. We’re talking about cost per pupil equity. I sat in the minority for four years while those were issues. I wasn’t the one in charge of it, and nothing got done. This caucus took control of the Senate in four years ago. And you know what happened? We solved that problem signed by the governor. That’s how you deliver for education. That’s the promise you make you find out what the problem is, and you fix it. We’ve talked about with teachers about what the problem is in the classroom. No teachers told me that collective bargaining is the problem. They’ve told me getting beaten up by their students is the problem. We saw that problem. And we’ve got a bill in the House, working to fix it. You see problems, and you fix problems, and that’s how you deliver for education. That’s how you do it right. You don’t dig a ditch promising the moon and the stars and deliver zero and negative. You see the problems, you hear the problems that come to you, and you find solutions to fix them,” she asserted.

The bill now will head to the governor’s desk to be signed into law.

Also, listen to the Iowa House debate on SF 2142.

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