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SAI Legislative Priorities for 2023 Session

 

Supplemental State Aid

SAI has always been a proponent of adequate and timely funding for Iowa’s public school districts. In recent years, the Legislature has been committed to determining SSA as early in the legislative session as possible to allow districts time to determine their budgets, as required by Iowa Code. These efforts are appreciated.

Unfortunately, the funding levels of SSA over the past several years have not been adequate in relation to the increased costs of educating Iowa children. School district expenditures generally increase by 3 to 4% each year, and SSA has increased at a rate of less than 2.1% per year over the past 10 years, on average. That is not adequate funding for our schools, considering the 3% settlement requirement for teaching staff, and a current inflation rate of around 8%. In addition, with low SSA, districts that have even slight declines in enrollment may experience a loss of funding that may require them to increase local property taxes to reach the “budget guarantee.” Over the past five years, there have been an average of 124 districts per year on the Budget Guarantee. This means additional property taxes for those districts of nearly 16 million dollars on average, each year.

School districts are also facing a critical shortage of teachers and support staff, partially due to the ability of the private sector to increase wages and salaries. Districts do not have the ability to be competitive with the private sector without increased state funding. In addition, the extremely high current inflation rates add to the pressure on districts to increase wages for all staff.

SAI supports an increase in SSA of at least 5% for the 2023-24 school year (FY24). SAI would also appreciate the Legislature setting the supplemental state aid rate within the statutory deadline of the first 30 days of the legislative session so that schools can properly budget and plan for FY24. Categorical funding should be increased at the same rate as supplemental state aid.

Employee Recruitment & Retention

The state of Iowa has a significant shortage of teachers and support staff. Many districts have been unable to fill teaching and other positions or have been forced to fill positions temporarily. There were efforts during the 2022 legislative session to assist districts in finding teachers to fill positions, including the elimination of the Praxis requirements, expansion of scholarship programs, IPERS earnings limit changes, and licensure reciprocity. These steps are appreciated. In addition, the Governor’s Teacher and Paraeducator Registered Apprenticeship Grant Program has been very successful regarding numbers. These changes/programs should have a positive impact, especially in future years. However, there needs to be more done to help districts in hiring and retention, and in options to fill positions.

As a state, we must encourage and incentivize individuals to both enter and remain in the teaching profession. SAI supports additional tools to attract individuals to the teaching profession. Flexibility within the Management Fund to recruit and/or retain teachers, and flexibility with the BoEE regarding licensure requirements would assist with this. Allowing district Superintendents’ discretion to temporarily hire non-certified teachers would be another helpful step.

In both the short- and long-term, SAI favors legislation, policy, and public support that will not only provide improved compensation for educators but will also foster the respect for the education profession that is deserved. Only when we can do this, will we be able to have adequate numbers of quality individuals educating Iowa children.

Local Control

SAI believes that the best decisions are made at the point closest to the actual process. We believe in local control of decision-making, particularly at the school board and administrator level. We understand that some “big picture” decisions need to be made at higher levels but believe that local school boards and administrators should determine the majority of practices and policies. Examples of local decision-making:

  • Funding flexibility that would allow districts to not be restricted by spending categories.
  • Ability to use teaching staff as needed to fill requirements and positions, such as teaching more than one class per period and licensure regulations that would allow teachers to teach slightly beyond certification.
  • Legislation that would allow local districts and boards to determine additional or new tax levies that would benefit the district and its residents (Management Fund expansion, Dropout Prevention).

Funding Equity

Iowa’s educational system was founded on the premise of equity for all students in the state, regardless of geographic location or socioeconomic status. To that end, SAI supports legislation and funding that will make and allow that to happen. The Transportation equity and the District Cost Per Pupil equity legislation put in place in recent years are excellent examples of this and are to be commended. Additional legislation is needed in other areas of existing inequity.

  • Dropout Prevention/At-Risk Cap

The percentage of students who qualify for free and reduced lunch has increased dramatically in many districts after the date the Dropout Prevention/At-Risk cap was put in place. Additionally, many districts are using this funding source to directly support mental health services for their students. Dropout Prevention funding is currently based on the total enrollment count, not the percentage of students at risk. Although flexibility for use of DoP funds has been legislatively expanded, DoP funding is still limited to 2.5% of the total regular program district cost for many districts. The current disparity in this funding mechanism is arbitrary and based on a history that is no longer relevant to supporting student needs, and all districts should be granted the option of flexibility to increase their DoP to 5% with board approval and community input.

SAI supports allowing ALL school districts to establish DoP funding at the 5% level.

  • Funding Formula

Socio-economic status does not limit any individual student. However, districts with large numbers of students in poverty have unique needs that require additional resources.

SAI supports the inclusion of socioeconomic status in the school foundation formula. Additional funding for districts with higher percentages of students living in poverty will help those districts meet the unique needs of those children.

Mental Health

The state has taken some important first steps in addressing the critical mental health needs of students. Therapeutic Classroom grants, provider loan forgiveness programs, telehealth expansion and other pieces of legislation are a start toward improving these services for children. This work does not go far enough to address the continuing mental health needs of children. SAI supports a comprehensive look at the growing mental health needs in the state of Iowa and the funding and implementation of external support for students with mental health issues. SAI urges the Legislature to continue to build on and encourage public/private partnerships in this endeavor and to form a Task Force to study the root causes of these increasing mental health issues.

Other mental health needs for our state are an increase in facilities and providers specifically targeting the mental health needs of our youth, as well as wraparound services and collaboration with outside entities (law enforcement, DHS, etc.). Systemic issues within the agencies and programs designed to meet these needs must be addressed. Additional funding as well as finding more efficient ways to provide services for Iowa children need to be a part of the plan.

Education Savings Accounts

SAI recognizes the importance of non-public schools as well as other educational options available to parents; and the organization is opposed to all forms of programs/plans that would appropriate or designate additional public funds to non-public school uses or other entities including private schools, home-schooling parents, and other private services.

Public schools that educate more than 90% of the students in our state, must be adequately funded and supported by the state. Any law, program or policy that diverts funds away from the schools that provide this education reduces their ability to educate Iowa children. The funding formula for Iowa schools is based on enrollment. Fewer students mean fewer resources for the vast majority of students still in public school.

In addition, proponents of ESAs mention that increased competition improves results for all. The data across the country does not necessarily agree with this stance. More importantly, fair competition assumes a level playing field, something that would not be present with ESA or voucher programs. Non-public schools are not required to accept all students. Nor are they subject to the same curricular expectations or the same assessment policies and procedures. The "competition” is not fair unless all are held to the same standards.