Sen. Amy Sinclair and Rep. Walt Rogers

Feb 9, 2018  | 27 min  | Ep 4523 | Podcast


School funding is an annual conversation at the Iowa legislature and 2018 is no different. A series of contentious cuts and smaller percentage increases have legislators on edge. We sit down with republican education committee chairs on this edition of Iowa Press.

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For decades, Iowa Press has brought you politicians and newsmakers from across Iowa and beyond. Now celebrating more than 40 years of broadcast excellence on statewide Iowa Public Television, this is the Friday, February 9 edition of Iowa Press. Here is David Yepsen.

Yepsen: Funding for K-12 schools commands a considerable portion of Iowa's state budget. Add in Regents funding and education becomes an even larger part of the budget. In 2018, democrats contend Iowa republicans have continued a trend of underfunding K-12 schools below the rate of inflation and also undermining public education in the process. Well, joining us in studio to talk about it are republican education committee chairs, Cedar Falls Representative Walt Rogers and Amy Sinclair, a State Senator from Allerton. Welcome back to Iowa Press. Welcome to you both.

Rogers: Thanks for having us.

Sinclair: Thank you.

Yepsen: Thanks for being with us today.

Rogers: You bet.

Yepsen: Across the table, James Lynch is Political Writer for the Gazette and Kay Henderson is News Director at Radio Iowa.

Henderson: Representative Rogers, this past week republicans in the House and Senate agreed that per pupil funding for the next academic year should rise from the state commitment about $67 per pupil. That amounts to about 1%. State tax revenues are projected to rise 4%. Why only 1%?

Rogers: Well, everything that we do when we're at the Capitol as far as budgeting is not in a small bubble as far as when you're concerned with one issue. And so we have to look at all the revenue that is coming in. As we look at the latest REC estimate that came out and compared to what is happening in January our revenue is at a 2.4% clip. It did say that we're going to have a 4% total for the year. But we have to look at all those numbers when we're trying to decide how we're going to fund education. So, Medicaid is taking dollars, some of the built-ins that we have to do with our budget are taking dollars. So we felt $32 million was the correct amount that would appropriately fund education and felt that was the right thing to do.

Henderson: Senator Sinclair, during the debate democrats used words like dismal to describe 1%. Why wasn't it greater than 1%?

Sinclair: You can't say that the supplement that is added onto the foundation formula, you can't set that in a vacuum. And as you know we were also dealing with some additional funding for inequities that are in our system and you have to take both of those dollars into effect. And we also need to look at the fact that we are in a position where we have to repay monies that we had to borrow out of our rainy day fund from the previous year. So while you say we have the 4% that is projected to be available to us, that really isn't there because we are having to repay those dollars and we are investing more than the 1% because we're dealing with some additional funding for those transportation and district costs per pupil inequities.

Lynch: So 2.4% or 4%, whichever number you want, why 1%? Why not go 2%? What are you saving that money for? Are you going to pay for vouchers? Senator Rogers?

Rogers: Well, like I said, we really start with an overall number of what is available for new revenue, which this year was right around $200 million. Medicaid took off the top of that close to $60 million. We had built-ins, Senator Sinclair talked about some of the money that we had to pay back to the emergency funds from last year. So when we got down to what new money was actually available we felt that $32 million was the correct amount. I mean, if you look back to what we have done over the past several years, you've heard me on the floor talk about this many times, I contend that we've done a pretty good job of funding education across the board. In fact, Iowa is the fourth best in the country as far as increased education funding in the past seven years. So we've done a pretty good job respectfully.

Lynch: But this is below even your historical level of funding, the 1%. So is it time to make the pie bigger so there's more money for education?

Rogers: Well, again, Senator Sinclair talked about we're going to put more dollars into transportation equity and the district cost per pupil equity and so above that $32 million there's also another $10 to $15 million that we're putting into those issues that will go directly to education.

Henderson: Well, let's talk about that transportation funding, which proved to be a sticking point to getting this resolved in this past week. Senator Sinclair, the Senate passed a proposal that would have dedicated money to each school district in the state whereas House republicans say that they would like to target it to the schools that pay the most to transport kids because they're just geographically sprawling districts. Why did Senate republicans choose to give transportation dollars to every school?

Sinclair: I guess our goal was to, if we're going to reach true equity and we're going to remove transportation costs from the local school district's budgets, then that should be done for every district. That being said, I have been more than happy to work with Representative Rogers to see how we can do that to address the neediest. By giving to every district that would mean that each district was getting less and those that are at the top of that pay range there's nearly $1,000 difference between the highest and the lowest cost to transport pupils. So even addressing each district with 10%, that's not decreasing the gap, unless you continue it over time. And that was our plan was to continue it over ten years until all of those costs were removed from their general fund budget so that transportation was funded separately. That was the reason we did it the way we did, because we want to fix the problem, not put a Band-Aid on the problem or just ease the burden. We really wanted to fix the problem.

Henderson: So, Representative Rogers, have House republicans committed to ripping the Band-Aid off and having a long-term solution to this?

Rogers: Well, we're committing to addressing the most needy districts right away. And Amy and I have talked about similar differences but we agree on most of the big numbers. But we do disagree on some of the specific strategies of addressing transportation inequity. And my caucus felt like we wanted to address the most needy districts first. And so that was kind of the sticking point the whole week and we decided that we wanted to make sure our dollars were going to those most needy districts, some, like Senator Sinclair talked about, are paying close to $1,000 or more per student for transportation, so we wanted to address those quickly.

Yepsen: The criticism that gets made, though, is that the legislature is not doing enough for K-12 schools. Well, they contend you've got a rainy day fund and democrats say it's raining, now is the time to be getting some more money into our schools. Senator, what do you say to that?

Sinclair: I say that's absolutely false to say that it's raining. Whether it's 2.4% or whether it's 4% growth, Iowa's economy is still growing. To me that's not raining. To me it is slowed growth, we are facing a pretty tight ag economy and that does cause the rest of the economy to be cautious as well here in the state. But it's not raining. So for us to dive into those funds when we do still have growth is irresponsible, it's irresponsible.

Yepsen: Representative, what are you doing if anything to get more money into the classroom? If you look at the number of classrooms that you have in the state and then look at the hundreds of millions of dollars you spend, you're spending several hundred thousand dollars per classroom. And yet you still have teachers in Iowa who have to dip into their own pocket to buy supplies. So what if anything will this legislature do to get more dollars into the classroom on task?

Rogers: Sure, and we have done several things the past couple of years. We did some really unique funding models last year or funding bills last year which we allowed schools to use some of their dollars that are in some of their categorical funds, they have dollars in silos that they have to use for specific purposes. At the end of the year some of those dollars are still sitting there and they have met all the requirements of those purposes so we said last year, let's allow them to use some of those dollars in more flexible ways. So we did that, passed a couple of flexibility bills, we have another flexibility bill this year that is going to dip more into some of those, the code book as far as flexibility and allow them to use those dollars for specific needs for students in the classroom. And so we're getting really good feedback in the last month or so from districts across the state that are really happy about that and want to see more of that flexibility spending.

Yepsen: Senator, do you think teachers are still going to be dipping into their pocket to pay for school supplies?

Sinclair: I have lived in an educator household for the last 23 years. You dip into your pockets when your kids need something and that's just how it works, that is just the kind of people Iowa educators and all people are, we're generous and we do what is necessary. I don't think that will ever stop because I think schools have rules on how much you have for your classroom supplies and some teachers want more. I think that we also have some credits in place within our tax system that help to offset that for many teachers as well.

Henderson: Did you go overboard in removing teachers from the classroom to become coaches for other teachers and reduce the number of teachers that are available to actually teach the kids that are sitting in the classroom?

Sinclair: So that has been a concern with the Teacher Leadership Compensation program that began. That is a concern. Are we taking the best teachers out of the classrooms. That is why I had the Department of Education in yesterday to talk specifically about that issue, about how much time teachers are going out of the classroom. The responses that we heard and the responses coming from the educators and administrators, self-reporting and it's anonymous so they can be as honest as they want, self-reporting is no. Self-reporting is that the work that is happening within the Teacher Leadership Compensation model is supporting the classroom teacher in her role. My son is currently in fifth grade at Wayne Community School. His teacher, his classroom teacher is one of the teacher leaders and yeah, she is out of the classroom two days of the week and as a mom I want that best teacher in with my son, but as a broader member of the community it is great that she is getting into the other classrooms and helping those teachers to become as good as she is.

Rogers: And if I could just echo, our student to teacher ratio is 13.5, which is the lowest it has been in a long time. Now, that allows, because of our Teacher Leadership Compensation model, allows certain schools to work with that ratio and pull some teachers out and teach other teachers how to be better teachers. That was part of the whole plan and we're getting really good response from schools across the state that really like that model.

Henderson: How do you come up with that number? Is that just a teacher that is teaching a kid? Or is it some of these teachers who are teaching other teachers? Or is it administrators?

Rogers: -- the number of students in the state of Iowa to the number of teachers in the state of Iowa.

Lynch: So you're including counselors, coaches, paraeducators?

Rogers: I think it's teacher to student ratio.

Lynch: Teacher to student ratio, okay. Before kids get to that classroom, though, a lot of them ride the bus and we've talked a little bit about the transportation cost. But I want to ask you about the time on the bus. Right now there is a bill that would allow students to ride the bus I think it's for an hour and fifteen minutes each way to school, from school. These are kids kindergartners all through elementary. Is that realistic to expect a kid to ride a bus? You're from a rural area --

Sinclair: I smile when you say that because --

Lynch: 75 minutes on a bus?

Sinclair: Is it realistic? It's not fun but it's realistic. Current code is 60 minutes for elementary students and 75 minutes for high school students. That is not in code, that is an administrative rule. I have introduced a bill and we have passed it out of committee that would extend that to 75 minutes for all students. Greene County was a school that reported to us, actually that is probably where this came from, why it was started. Greene County reported that they have a co-located elementary and secondary school and yet they're having to run different bus routes to accommodate the time differences for the elementary and the high school students. By allowing the elementary students to be on the bus the same amount of time as the high school students they will be able to trim two bus routes and save $100,000. $100,000 going right back into the classroom to make sure those kids are educated better.

Lynch: Is this just the fact of life as population declines in rural Iowa, as districts seem to get bigger as schools merge, that we're going to face more of this where kids are riding a bus for more than an hour to get to school?

Sinclair: I think it's a fact of life of rural Iowa and most of us understand that.

Lynch: Is there a way to capitalize on that time to help kids use that time wisely doing homework or studying online?

Sinclair: There has been a conversation about getting Wi-Fi on buses so that one-to-one schools, those kids could have their devices out doing homework or reading. My son rides the bus home from school, he rides to school with his father, but he rides the bus home from school, he reads on the way home and it's not a 75 minute ride, it's a 35 minute ride.

Rogers: And this idea came from the Iowa Association of School Boards and they're the ones that wanted us to address this.

Henderson: Representative Rogers, there was a horrific accident in Western Iowa where a school bus driver and a student died. Aside from the details of that, do you need to revamp the school bus so that it is equipped for Wi-Fi, it is a safer vehicle in which to transport students?

Rogers: I think we should be rethinking totally how we do transportation. We're kind of stuck in this model with the 80 seat school bus going to rural Iowa and picking up kids where a lot of those school buses sit 60%, 70%, 80% empty sometimes. So I think our world today maybe should start thinking about different ways to transport kids. And I've been serious about it, I've said to people maybe we should think about rural Uber with transporting kids and maybe we should think outside of the box as far as getting kids, that we could incorporate that time and make it a better use of their time.

Lynch: Representative Rogers, you have introduced a bill, I think you call it Educational Savings Accounts, some people call it vouchers --

Rogers: We call it the Iowa Student Opportunity Act.

Lynch: Okay, call it what you want. It would allow parents to get about $5,000 per student in a non-public school setting. This could grow to be pretty expensive. I think right now there's about 34,000 kids in non-public schools. If you get to the point where you're funding that many it's $250 million or somewhere around that. Why should public money be going to private schools?

Rogers: Well, again, philosophically I believe that parents should have the right to choose where their kids go to school and kids should have more opportunity. And I believe the bill I put forth does that and it does it in a way that we can incrementally work the process, use just the state dollars, that $5,000, I think it's about $5,000 and just use 90% of those dollars to go into an educational savings account, allows the parents, again, to pick the best place for their kid. We love public schools, public schools are great in the state of Iowa, but they're not the best fit for everybody. And so I philosophically believe that everybody pays state dollars, their state taxes across the board and so I think parents who are doing that should have the right to decide where their kids go to school.

Yepsen: Those public schools will be the first people to say what you're proposing to do will take money away from them at a time when they're starving.

Rogers: Well, kids are leaving schools for a lot of reasons. They're going to different schools, they're open enrolling to different schools. They're changing their schools for a lot of different reasons. So those dollars are leaving schools and it would leave schools in the same way. And so we don't have to appropriate any new dollars for this bill, this is just a process that those dollars that are already appropriated would follow the student to a different place. And in actuality the district would still get to keep the uniform levy dollars and they also would keep the SAVE dollars. So actually when it comes to dollars that they're using per student they would be gaining dollars.

Henderson: But doesn't public mean public and private mean private?

Rogers: When I think of public I think about anybody who is going to work in public. And so we are educating the public and I believe, again, it's my philosophy that parents should have the right to decide where those public dollars that they have all put into should go.

Yepsen: Senator, how do you respond to the charge that schools make against these ideas, that you're really taking money away from the public school and giving it to religious programs, home schoolers, people like that?

Sinclair: I am an advocate for parental decision making in educating children. I have never been shy about sharing that. I think that what we have done this year in addressing the needs of our public schools first identifies where our priority is. Public schools educate about 90% of Iowa's students right now. In states where choice has been opened up only about 3% of the students choose to follow that and that has just been the example in other states that have followed this route. What I do think is necessary, because you made a very clear point, these are dollars that are tax dollars, we are charged with maintaining the public trust in fiduciary matters. When I look at this if we're going down this route then we need to make sure that a child is leaving the public school system and going into an alternative option, a private school, that that school be accredited, that it be a high quality education, that we are maintaining that fiduciary trust in educating one of the members of our population.

Henderson: Can we trust the state to do that? We had a school in Southeast Iowa that was teaching children and it was closed because it wasn't teaching the children.

Sinclair: It was not accredited.

Rogers: Right, the bill requires that the ESA account go to an accredited school.

Yepsen: James?

Lynch: One social revenue that schools say is very important is the one cent sales tax for infrastructure. There has been talk about extending that for another 20 years. Senator Sinclair, are you going to do that this year?

Sinclair: So the bill in the Senate is in the Ways and Means Committee, I don't actually work directly with them in the process, but I know that there is the conversation happening and there are some good ideas being placed out there. I have been a longtime supporter of SAVE, I'll rewind even further than SAVE, back to when these were locally determined I was one of the advocates in Wayne County for passing our silo for a couple of reasons. It gave a permanent stream of revenue for dealing with what, in rural areas, was a very crumbling infrastructure. At the same time it offered an option for lowering property taxes for the very people who were attending those schools.

Yepsen: Representative, so what is your sense of the House? Will that sales tax extension, will the sales tax, the local option, be extended?

Rogers: Well, I just introduced a bill in my committee this week, we've got it signed, it is our intention to pass it. So it's a 20 year extension what we've got in the bill right now. And it does a few things different with districts who want to put money towards an athletic field or an athletic structure. But other than that, oh and it also adds some more dollars to what is called the Peter Fund, which helps with property taxes. And so that is our plan. We may tweak it along the way and we'll have input from our whole caucus. But it is our intention to get it passed this year.

Yepsen: We've got way too many questions and not enough time. Kay?

Henderson: You talk about assessments. Aside from that, kids take a lot of tests. You're recommending they take one more, a civics test. Why?

Rogers: Again, I just think it's common sense that kids should know a little bit of basic civics when they come out of high school. I remember when I graduated from UNI I had to take just a basic writing class and so this is just something that I think is the right thing to do. And not only that, I think it would help kids get a little bit more, I think -- honestly I think Iowa does a pretty good job, but this is just kind of a statement that says, you have to pass this test. By doing that they have to focus a little bit on what our history is, what our government is and maybe get a little more excited about becoming a Senator or a Representative someday.

Lynch: Be careful what you wish for. There is another bill in the legislature right now that calls for schools teaching the Bible as literature or as history as part of a social studies curriculum. More than a hundred schools are already offering some sort of a comparative religion or world religion class. Do we need this bill? Why do we need it?

Rogers: I'm letting my caucus and the Education Committee kind of work through that. And one of the things that came out in the subcommittee is a lot of that is already happening in some of the schools already. And so, again, one of the things I do with my committee is try to let them run with the passions that they believe are right. And so this bill came out of my committee, Representative Wheeler was excited about it, I said, see how it goes, run your subcommittee, let's see what happens and we'll see what the full committee decides on the bill.

Lynch: That didn't sound like a ringing endorsement. Senator Sinclair, do you expect to take this up in Senate Education?

Sinclair: I do not have the bill in the Senate but I will say exactly what Representative Rogers alluded to, this already happens. My oldest son goes through concurrent enrollment with Indian Hills Community College took the Bible as literature in high school.

Henderson: You are also again struggling with when schools should start because apparently the State Fair gets to determine that date. Representative Rogers, are you going to change the law yet again?

Rogers: You know, I've talked to several of my committee members about that quite honestly and what I'm telling people is I'm not sure our caucus has the desire to go into that discussion again. It was kind of a long, hard discussion the last time we took it up and quite honestly I'm not sure we're ready to do that again.

Yepsen: Same sentiment in the Senate?

Sinclair: My chamber would likely pass it. I don't think we're gaining enough to open up the scab again if you want my opinion.

Rogers: That's a good way to put it.

Sinclair: Though I will say I have been exploring some alternatives. Currently elementary schools are allowed to have a flex schedule. I have been exploring some alternatives for the secondary schools to also have a flex schedule if they have high poverty or low test scores that would indicate that that summer loss would need to be addressed.

Yepsen: James?

Lynch: What about racial imbalances in school districts? There is a bill that would allow the five largest districts to not regulate open enrollment out, that you could call it the white flight bill. Are you going to pass that?

Sinclair: So I'm going to back up and change your premise. Those diversity plans are excluded from using race as a measure. So this is not a racial bill, it is not a white flight bill, this is a bill that allows five of, three of them the very largest, it allows five school districts to not let children open enroll out of their district because they might make too much. That is not okay. They're based on income. Their diversity plans are based on socioeconomic factors, on maybe free or reduced lunch, they are not based on race. We are giving 85% of the state of Iowa students the option to open enroll if the school that they're in doesn't suit their needs and yet these five districts because they had a plan, which by the way the plan was invented because their diversity plans previous were ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court, and yet we tweaked them a little and suddenly they're okay and we're leaving 15% of the state's population unable to open enroll should the school that they're in not fit them. And that seems wrong.

Yepsen: Senator, I have to interrupt. I am unable to continue the program because we're out of time. I want to thank you both for being with us today.

Rogers: Thanks for having us.

Sinclair: Perfect. Wonderful conversation.

Yepsen: And thank you for joining us. We'll be back with another edition of Iowa Press next week at our regular airtimes Friday night at 7:30 and Sunday at Noon on our main IPTV channel with a rebroadcast on our .3 World channel Saturday morning at 8:30. For all of us here at Iowa Public Television, I'm David Yepsen. Thanks for joining us today.


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